Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante has achieved international critical acclaim for his award-winning debut feature film Ixcanul.
The film, which stars María Mercedes Croy as the lead, Mara, won the Alfred Bauer Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, and is Guatemala’s choice for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards.
It is a beautifully crafted story of a young Mayan woman, Mara, and her desire to transcend life in the highlands and avoid an arranged marriage to a man she does not love.
“Dreams of escape”
Despite being about an indigenous community in the mountains of Guatemala, the film, and Mara’s story, has universal appeal. A tale of teenage love, drunken, awkward sex, and dreams of escape, could have been set in any number of countries or cultures in the world.
There are, however, central aspects which firmly locate the film in Guatemala, and more specifically in the country’s indigenous highlands. Most of the film, apart from some scenes in Guatemala City, is in the Kaqchikel, a Mayan language. Guatemala recognises 21 Mayan languages, including Kaqchikel which has some 400,000 speakers.
Ixcanal – which means volcano in Kaqchikel – is as central to the film as the characters themselves. The smouldering volcano, which Maria’s family live beside, features prominently throughout the film as it groans and growls, smoke billowing from its crater. Imbued with recurring images of fire, smoke and steam, the film explores the themes of life, death, tradition and change.
Interwoven throughout the film’s finely textured portrayal of bucolic life is a commentary on language, marginalization and inequality, largely experienced by the country’s indigenous population. The commentary, however, is never overt and never bludgeons the viewer with social and political messages. Instead, Bustamante manages to subtly convey the country’s deeply embedded discrimination.
Racism and differences
Guatemala’s indigenous people constitute 41 percent of the country’s population, but are, and have historically been, discriminated against. Indeed, racism is part of the fabric of Guatemalan society.
According to a report earlier this this year carried out by the United Nations High committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, racism continues to be prevalent.
Maria Gutierrez, the Presidential Coordinator against Discrimination and Racism against Indigenous Peoples of Guatemala, noted that there is “profound political, economic, social and development inequalities in the country, which explained the discrimination and exclusion that prevailed in indigenous areas”.
Bustamante captures this perfectly when a crisis ensues and Maria’s family, speaking no Spanish, attempt to obtain answers from health care and state officials. Their efforts, however, are hindered by their inability to communicate, and they are treated like immigrants. An exasperated doctor barks at Mara’s mother Juana, “Sorry, I don’t speak your language.”
At another point, Juana, desperate to be heard, to be understood, exclaims in Kaqchikel “I need to speak”. It is, of course, futile: she cannot be understood. But, Bustamante, through his film, ensures that her voice, Mara’s and that of marginalised indigenous communities of Guatemala are heard.