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Building a culture of resistance: Reflections on Skylight’s DocsMX retrospective

Last month’s Skylight retrospective at the DocsMX Film Festival in Mexico City of our cinematic body of work was really special. It featured the Spanish-language premieres of our films Takeover and Resurgence, thanks to translation and subtitling by the festival; audiences who were smart and well-informed about our work; and offered an opportunity for Paco and me to reflect on our life’s work. But it made us question: Have our attempts to use film and innovative outreach and impact campaigns been meaningful and effective in catalyzing change? 

For example, revisiting Resurgence with Latin American audiences made me think about how white supremacy has remained deeply entrenched since we made the film 40 years ago and even had a new resurgence in recent years. Since we filmed the movement of homeless families simultaneously taking over empty, government-owned houses in eight U.S. cities in May, 1990, has anything really changed? Homelessness today is much worse than when we filmed Takeover. The rich richer, the poor poorer. 

And we were joined by generations of filmmakers who opened paths for us when we were starting out, and those whom we guided that came after us. Mexican producer Bertha Navarro and director Gonzalo Infante were in the midst of making a film about Guatemala in 1981 when the crew was surrounded by the army and they nearly lost their lives. Bertha and Gonzalo then went on to help us make When the Mountains Tremble in 1982, sharing equipment, sources and knowledge. Years later, we did the same with Andrea Ixchíu, a young Mayan protagonist in our film 500 Years, which closed the retrospective. Andrea is currently completing her first feature-length documentary. 

After much thought and in conversation with Peter Kinoy, with whom I co-founded Skylight, it really struck me at the retrospective that not only are the documentaries works of art from a unique time and place, but that the films speak to how we become protagonists of our own history. They tell stories with people who have dared to make change and challenge narratives dominating their societies. 

They may not have made the giant changes we envisioned, but these stories could have been forgotten, erased. The way people decided to lead, to act, and to rebel hold valuable lessons for future generations to carry out and indeed the films continue to be used by social justice movements to organize and inspire. 

Photo: Paco de Onís and Pamela Yates in Mexico City at the DocsMX Film Festival, October 2022. 

Pamela Yates

Pamela Yates is an award-winning film director and the co-founder of Skylight, a not-for-profit media organization that for over 35 years has combined cinematic arts with the quest for justice to inspire the defense of human rights. Skylight’s films and programs strengthen social justice movements and catalyze collaborative networks of artists and activists.

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