Jayro Bustamante: ‘Cinema is Our Way of Lighting Up Our Country’

Jayro Bustamante: 'Cinema is Our Way
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

Guatemalan director talks about his debut, Berlin Silver Bear winner ‘Ixcanul’

Alfonso Ruizpalacios’ “Gueros” was the most-laurelled Latin American debut of 2014. This year, Jayro Bustamante’s “Ixcanul,” a Guatemala-France co-pro, is shaping up to inherit that crown, having already won Berlinale’s Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize, then topped Guadalajara and Cartagena, Mexico and Colombia’s biggest fests, respectively. Described by Variety’s Scott Foundas as “a transporting, hypnotically beautiful debut feature” and “downright Herzogian (far more Herzogian than Herzog’s own ‘Queen of the Desert’),” “Ixcanul” is produced by Guatemala’s La Casa de Produccion and Edgard Tenembaum’s Paris-based Tu Vas Voir, whose credits also include Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries.” The story of a young Mayan woman, living in a community of Kaqchikel-speaking coffee farmers, whose unwanted pregnancy brings her into final — and shocking — contact with the modern world she dreamt so much about, “Ixcanul” delivers a sucker punch about what Bustamante has called one driving theme of “Ixcanul”: the “impossibility of an underage woman, who is Mayan and lives far from a big city, to determine her own destiny.”

“Ixcanul” begins with scenes featuring María and her mother as they prepare for María arranged marriage with Ignacio, the coffee plantation’s foreman.  The sequences — putting on María’s best clothes, getting their sow pregnant, the dinner with the future in-laws — could be seen as “scene-setting,” or near documentary. But  they also anticipate and symbolize later events and themes of the film: The modern world treats María rather like her family does the sow – and begins to drive the action right from the very get-go.

This is hybrid docu/fiction filmmaking, yes, but of avery high order where everything counts, and often has a consequence. Following “Ixcanul” from unseen rough-cut through to its spirited international sales, struck by Film Factory, Variety talked once more to Bustamante in the run-up to the fourth 1FF Panama, where “Ixcanul” plays its Central America/Caribbean section.

At the beginning of “Ixcanul,” it’s as if you wanted to be true to a place you know well, but at the very same time make a fiction film that says something. Could you comment?

The initial idea for the film comes from my encounter with the real MarÍa who told me her story. Exactly, her life story is the end of the film. That’s why I was so interested in understanding how could she become the perfect prey, how could “the others” so easily trick her. This is when fiction comes into play. To tell this true fact I “fictionalized” the steps she took into what they represented to me. I emphasized fictionalize because all the fiction elements that I used to make up the story are also true facts that happened in my environment.

The different issues engaged in the film are political, social subjects that are so common in Guatemala that they are taken for granted. So I used the film language to approach and tell them, raising again the interest in the spectator.

That’s the reason why it was primordial to make a movie that would connect with the audience.

One key element in “Ixcanul” is the marvelous performances, especially of Maria and her mother. I believe neither had acted before, and you were lucky to be able to access them because a rust disease attacked coffee plantations. I wonder if you could talk about the film’s production.

The actors in the movie are, by far, the soul and magic of what has happened with “Ixcanul.” Something that is very interesting is that even if they were not professional actors (except Maria Telon), they are all born actors. The preparation with the actors took very hard work, and each one of them worked really well their character. For the actors, who live in a small town with its services and comforts, and are all bilingual, it was very important to give in to interpret these characters who live isolated and only spoke a Mayan tongue.

Since the subject of inequality is so common in Guatemala, we searched within our own experiences to feed these feelings that run over and tie up these characters. Something that was very useful for us was the complete trust and familiarity that was achieved while working with all the members of the team, including the actors. Taking care of each other, since we were filming in a dangerous place, and caring for each other’s work, undoubtedly contributed to what we have achieved.

The film has across-the-board production values: cinematography, editing, sound, art design. I believe most key craft posts are Guatemalans who often have studied or work abroad…..

The film industry in Guatemala is still very young; all the references that we have seem very hard to reach. Our schools are still shaping up, so by watching a lot of films, studying the movies that interest us for their quality, and backing ourselves up with talents that come from abroad can help us to highlight our own talents. My generation had to go study abroad.

Ultimately, “Ixcanul” seems a comment on how the “modern” world in Guatemala treats its indigenous population and what you once observed to be the inability of a girl like María to determine her own destiny. 

What makes us so particular in Guatemala is that we don’t have problems with discrimination against minorities. Our minorities are very well-off; our problems affect the majority. The majority in a country does not have color, language, surnames, and the codes to grow in a society. Mayans are found at the lowest point of this terrible scale, and the lowest among the Mayan population are women. That’s why Maria’s character has so many problems to decide her own destiny. But for me it’s not only Maria, all my characters live the same hardships, although for some of them it is less evident. The volcano also represents that risk that anything can change in any moment, that nothing is safe.

The most famous modern artistic take on Latin America may be Gabriel García Márquez’s “magic realism.” I wonder if, in the light of “Ixcanul,” you’d agree with that phrase.

There is a lot of magic realism in “Ixcanul.” That is why hyperrealism in the filming was so important. It was primordial to let go of that tragic, magical part. Latin America is still living in that daily magic realism, I think partly because we are a new continent with a history that left us in very tight chains and partly because we had to grow up in huge steps. Those mixtures always create magical spaces between hard truths.

How was the film financed?

La Casa de Produccion, which is my own company in Guatemala, covered the costs of pre-production and filming with personal loans, which we are still paying, and with the help and generosity of the whole team and the community where we worked. Actually, it was a little naive to think we could finish the film by ourselves and with debts. When we couldn’t go any further, a co-production arose with Tu Vas Voir, from France, Edgar Tenembaum. Thanks to that and various international funds, we managed to finish the movie in the way we wanted to.

There are five titles by Guatemalan directors in either Primer Mirada or the IFF Panama’s Central America/Caribbean section. People are talking about a “New Guatemalan Cinema.” Why this renaissance, or naissance, when there are no film funds in Guatemala?

For a young generation of filmmakers that experienced Guatemala’s Civil War in their childhood, there’s an urgent need to tackle subjects that were hidden from us, or that we were banned from talking about. On top of that urgency now comes the need to express ourselves. Now, as adults, we need to shed light on things that are etched in the remote recesses of our memory. Cinema is our way of lighting up our country. But that need in itself isn’t sufficient if there is no official support, no incentives and no film culture. Cinema is a very costly business, not only in economic terms, but also in terms of effort. Solidarity among filmmakers has been key to these films being made. And when I say filmmakers I’m not talking only about directors. I think that thanks to technicians we’ve managed to make up for deficiiencies. The strength and support that Guatemalan technicians have brought to projects have allowed us to do great things with small means.

Emiliano Granada contributed to this article.

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