With the backing of awards at the Berlin, Montreal, Guadalajara, Lima and Cartagena film festivals, Ixcanul, an exquisite Guatemalan film about the filial love between mother and daughter in a Kaqchikel Maya community, premieres on the big screens of the US.
“This film is born out of the childhood of María, I woman I met who told me that her mother worked doing medical campaigns in Lake Atitlán,” said the director Jayro Bustamante during the presentation of his film at the Guadalajara Film Festival in Mexico in 2015. “This lady told me her life and then I wrote the story.”
Busy caring for the coffee plants, the chickens and the pig, young María is forced to marry a widower through an arranged wedding. However, she likes a boy that fascinates her with stories about remote places.
“María told me ‘tell it, because it’s not my story, it is the story of several women in Guatemala,’” said Bustamante. “She gave me two requirements: not to reveal her real name and not to see the film, which up until now I have respected.”
The preparation for Ixcanul (volcano in Maya) lasted 4 years, and it took a month and a half to film at Pacaya Volcano National Park. “The team of about fifty people climbed the volcano, it was active,” said Bustamante. “At some point we had to get out running because it exploded.”
María’s feelings erupt at the foothills of a fuming volcano where the story takes place. The ‘temascal,’ a traditional Maya sauna, also plays a central role in the film.
‘The temascal occurs in women who are at the stage of pregnancy, where they bond more with their mother, because the mother already knows how all will evolve, she goes telling her daughter how it is and how it will happen,” said María Mercedes Coroy, who interprets María. “It’s the daily life of many women.”
Bustamante rehearsed with non-professional actors for three months, going with them to the temascal once a week. He always had it clear that he wanted to make a fiction film rather than documentary. His direction is solid, yielding realistic performances.
“We had a translator from Kaqchikel to Spanish, but then actors were judges of their dialogues, their actions,” Bustamante said. “Details of the the script changed, but the skeleton of my story did not.”
Bustamante spent his childhood at his grandparent’s coffee farm, marking him as a kid. Ixcanul, the story of a community whose worldview is closely linked to the spiritual powers of the omnipresent volcano, is told from the inside.
“I did not want to make a folkloric film, I wanted to really get into the community; in a region where 80 percent of the population is Maya, I wanted to avoid that look of the foreigner,” Bustamante said. “When you come from a country like Guatemala, where most are Maya, you really do not have the impression of working with a community, you’re working with your neighbors.”
The film does not criticize the tradition of the Maya, but rather certain “radical’ attitudes, according to the director.
“A spiritual guide of any religion or movement, if radical, can lead you the wrong way,” Bustamante said. “We were interested in telling the story of a radical point of view, not judging the beliefs of a people: what happens when you’re ill-advised.”
With an excellent, sparing sound finish; an unhurried, skillfully weaved in crescendo narrative; and beautiful, hypnotizing images, Ixcanul is a cinematic gem that comes from a place in the world with very little film production. A unique opportunity to see Central American cinema, a window to the Maya world.