Contemplative documentarian Juan Manuel Sepulveda captures the stillness of Guatemala’s emerald green mountains along with the memory of the mass slaughter they contain in his stunning and disturbing “Lessons for a War.” In the civil war of the 1980s and ’90s, Guatemala’s army terrorized the Ixil and K’iche people, murdering more than 200,000 and forcing the rest into remote areas. Those that survived now farm and wait for further horrors they sense are imminent. Winner of a special mention award in Morelia, “Lessons” deserves a critical push, and is ideal fest fare for patient auds.
Sepulveda’s camera (he’s his own lenser here, in contrast with previous docu “The Infinite Border”) maintains a certain distance at first, as villagers search a verdant area for body parts hurriedly buried two decades earlier. Right from the start, the helmer silently proclaims his p.o.v. with a humane artistry showcasing beautiful compositions in service of informed compassion.
The people live in simply constructed dirt-floor homes surrounded by magnificent landscape, yet the tranquility of the lush, misty jungle can’t dispel memories of an unspeakable tragedy. Peace has come to Guatemala, but the discovery of lucrative natural resources in the area make the Ixil and K’iche acutely vulnerable to forced upheavals. Their understandable paranoia shapes older generations who make sure their offspring know the current calm can be broken at any moment.
Though a strain of melancholy runs throughout the docu, Sepulveda shows these people as resilient and dynamic rather than simply tragic. There’s a beautiful fixed-camera scene in a bedroom, a man lying in the foreground, his wife seated back-right and spotlit by what appears to be a shaft of natural light as they discuss their courtship, love, deprivation and survival. Earlier, the helmer includes an extraordinary shot of a woman seen from behind, weaving and staring out to the mountains, scanning the horizon like Odysseus’ Penelope for the husband who left three years earlier and hasn’t been heard from since.
“Lessons” is full of these vignettes, expertly edited together into a slow-flowing description of people who’ve learned to be wary of the future yet are also grateful for what can still be celebrated. Sound design adds another rich layer, creatively used in ways that emphasize Sepulveda’s respect for the material.