IXCANUL: Guatemala’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar Nominee–in Theaters Now

IXCANUL, Jayro Bustamante’s impressive directing debut, was Guatemala’s entry for the 2015 Academy Awards, as Best Foreign Language Film.

The film won the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize at the 2015 Berlin Film Fest, and later was an official Selection at the Telluride and Toronto Film Fests.

The story centers on Maria, a 17 year old Mayan girl, who lives and works with her parents on a coffee plantation in the foothills of an active volcano in Guatemala. An arranged marriage awaits, as her parents have promised her to Ignacio, the plantation overseer.

But Maria doesn’t sit back and accept her destiny. Pepe, a young coffee cutter who plans to migrate to the USA becomes her possible way out. Maria seduces Pepe in order to run away with him, but after promises and clandestine meetings, Pepe takes off, leaving her pregnant, alone and in a state of disgrace.

Maria’s mother thinks abortion is the only solution, but despite her ancestral knowledge, the baby remains, “destined to live.”  Things change when a snake bite forces them to leave immediately in search of a hospital. The modern world Maria has so dreamt about will save her life, but at a price.

The director has said that tackling the story from the point of view of a mother and her environment, which is so far from modernity, allowed him to also talk about indigenous women in general: their life, their people and their position up against a westernized culture that always dominate, and within a culture where they will always end up being the victims of abuse and injustice.

Interview with the Director

I spent my childhood in the Guatemalan highlands, land of the Maya, surrounded by volcanoes and ancient indigenous traditions. As a child, I crossed the mountains with my mother on her medical campaigns, which consisted of convincing Mayan mothers to vaccinate their children. It was hard work trying to create alliances between the Mayan and mestizo communities. In most cases, the Mayans didn’t speak Spanish and the mountains were unsafe due to the armed conflict that was ravaging the country at the time.

Years later, my mother shared her outrage with me, when she found out that some public health employees had been involved in the abduction of Mayan children, contributing to the breakdown of the bonds they’d struggled so hard to create. This was the jumping-off point for this story and it is where it will come full circle. Unfortunately, the Guatemalan highlands where I grew up always suffered from a high rate of discrimination and were deeply affected by the trafficking of children during and after the country’s armed conflict (1960-1996). The abduction of children in my country is no secret. With only 14 million inhabitants, Guatemala became the number one exporter of children in the world. The UN reported 400 abductions of minors each year, carried out with complete impunity.

A very broad and dark issue, it brings together many guilty parties such as public notaries, judges, doctors, orphanage directors and so many more.  Despite the density and resonance of the subject, my interest focused on the mothers, victims of this aberration. Tackling it from the point of view of a mother and her environment, so far from modernity, allowed me to also talk about indigenous women in general: their life, their people and their position up against a westernized culture that always dominate, and within a culture where they will always end up being the victim of abuse and injustice. Maria is a young character who belongs to this culture and who fights to create her own destiny, but isn’t allowed to.

My work began at the heart of the Maya community, setting up workshops for people to discuss the social problems that concerned them. Drawing from these real-life stories, meetings and one testimony in particular, I wrote the narrative. Also during this process, I trained members of the community to be actors in the film.  It was an eye-opening experience to me.   I want the story to build slowly. Starting within a naturalist world, from the nucleus of a Maya family. Discovering their everyday gestures, language, tradition and rites. Revealing their communion with the local volcano, Ixcanul, which acts as another character in the story. Human life and nature living as one.

Finally, reaching the moment in which this idea of life and the world becomes fertile ground for the vultures who come to drink from the source and taking advantage of the abyss that separates two opposing conceptions, leaving impotence as the only possible answer.

About the Director:

Jayro Bustamante was born in Guatemala in 1977 and trained as director in his country, Paris and Rome. Bustamante’s short films have been awarded prizes in several festivals. The most recent, “Cuando Sea Grande,” debuted at the Clermont Ferrand Festival where it won the CNC quality award, and was broadcast on French, Swedish and Dutch television.

His script, “El Escuadron De La Muerte” was selected for the San Sebastian, Guadalajara, Cartagena, Biarritz, Amiens and NALIP Film Festivals.  Ixcanul is his very impressive first feature film.