North America take 4 – A look at Guatemala’s Mayan community

Ixcanul (Volcano) – Jayro Bustamante (2015)

This week’s film is worlds different from anything else I’ve seen before. Set in the Guatemalan highlands, it tells the story of the indigenous Mayan community that live and work on a coffee plantation below an active volcano. The cast is made of entirely  non-professional Maya actors, and spoken in their native tongue, Kaqchikel. This language is far from that spoken in the rest of the country (Spanish) and so, the majority of Guatemalans cannot actually understand them at all. The film’s director, however, grew up in the same region as the community shown in the film, and was taught the Kaqchikel language by his nanny, and although not entirely fluent now he knows enough to be able to write a film with it, and direct his actors. Astonishingly, this film, which gained international recognition, winning awards across the globe from Belize, to Mumbai, Berlin, and Montreal, is Jayro Bustamante’s debut feature. It has since become the most award-winning film

It’s plot is derived from a real story, Bustamante revealing in one interview; “The idea was born from a real story, the story of a real Maria. What’s really inspired in her life is the third act, the problematic situation with the baby. Based on that I started to create this fictional screenplay but always grounded on real things that I had seen in Guatemala.”

It focuses on Maria, a teenage girl who, although promised to marriage with another local man, seduces a local plantation worker in the hope that he will take her with him when he, as planned, leaves for the U.S. This backfires when he leaves without her, and she becomes pregnant with his child. Her family are also dealing with a snake infestation that is ruining their prospects for planting crops to earn their living.

The films themes of arranged or forced marriage, escape and freedom are somewhat similar to the ideas explored in the Turkish film post, Mustang. Both families are keen to have their daughters (/granddaughters) married to men who hold good social standing in the community, in order for the family to retain or improve their standing. Where in Mustang the marriages were an attempt at damage control for the family’s reputation after the girls were suspected impure and given virginity tests, Ixcanul has seemingly different reasons. It seems Maria’s marriage is arranged with the intention to help support the family, who are struggling financially, as an infestation of snakes prevent them from planting crops for harvest season – the areas’ only source of work and income.Other similarities can be drawn between Lale’s plans to escape to Istanbul and Maria’s hopes of crossing Mexico to find freedom in the U.S. Both stories explore the subject of trapped or confined women. In a similar way that the girls in Mustang defy their elders by sneaking out with neighbourhood boys, Maria does by seducing Pepe.

Alike in Sin Nombre, the U.S is somewhat a beacon of hope for the younger generation in Central America here. After seeing Sin Nombre, it is obvious that Pepe most likely never makes it across the border and perhaps, if she’d have gone, Maria wouldn’t have either. Yet it is clearly another world that the young people are intrigued by.

Though the film is full of long takes it doesn’t feel too slow but rather, respectful of the pace of the Mayan community’s life. Although it is rich in drama and tension, the film is mostly quiet and contemplative, helping to give the impression of natural, observation of the community rather than a fiction film. It is eerie, tragic, in many places unforgiving and difficult to watch (the slaughter and skinning of the pig springs to mind), but most of all it is beautiful. A rare viewing experience and, for anybody who is interested in different cultures, an essential one.


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