Every now and then, a country emerges from decades of oppression and a film industry, once squashed lest it tell truths uncomfortable for the powers that be, begins to blossom with new, unfettered voices. The country of the moment is Guatemala, which is being honored at this year’s Guadalajara International Film Festival, and has begun to make itself known around the world largely through the success of Jayro Bustamante’s 2021 Golden Globe nominee and Venice Days winner “La Llorona” and Cesar Diaz’s “Nuestras Madres,” which won both the Camera d’Or and the SACD Critics Week prizes at Cannes 2019.

“I’ve noticed a new generation of filmmakers emerging that are dying to tell their stories after a long bout of silence,” says Justin Lerner, an American who has made Guatemala his second home and directed the Guadalajara competition entry “Cadejo Blanco.”

Guatemala is a small country with a nascent film industry, so it should come as no surprise that the best work together. Diaz executive produced and edited “Cadejo Blanco,” while Mauricio Escobar, line producer on “La Llorona,” also has a producer’s credit here.

“Cadejo Blanco” is a gritty and grueling film that follows the transformation of the younger sister of a young woman who disappears, sinking into the criminal underworld of Puerto Barrios as she seeks out revenge on those responsible for her sister’s disappearance.

Variety speaks to Lerner in Guadalajara.

You used a mix of professional actors and others who had never acted before. What was that like?

Early on, we agreed that, except for Brandon López, who plays the leader of the clica [the criminal gang], we would cast non-professionals in Puerto Barrios, many of whom were formerly affiliated with gangs. For a year or two, we held open auditions where we’d ask them to tell us stories about growing up. Instead of acting ability, I was looking more for people who could be themselves in front of the camera, and who also wanted to play versions of themselves in the film. Once cast, we worked details from their biographies into the script and let each of them change their dialogue to sound like their own voice.

The professional actors from Guatemala City acted as mentors and friends to them. Once I offered the lead role to Karen Martínez, we brought her and acting coach Tatiana Palomo to do workshops with Rudy Rodríguez, the 19 year-old from Puerto Barrios who played Andrés, who had rushed to our auditions on his lunch break from the auto shop where he worked. For the weeks leading up to the shoot, Brandon López was also their on-set acting coach, and his background as a former non-professional first timer was very helpful in relating to them. Brandon, who was discovered in a similar “street casting” for his first film role in “La Jaula de Oro,” which also won him an award at Cannes, so they all really looked up to him.

Even though you have spent a lot of time in Guatemala, was it difficult to recreate a world that is both socially and culturally different from your own?

Of course, it was difficult, but that’s why the preparation for the film took nearly four years. I traveled from where I lived in Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios with co-producer Pedro H. Murcia, who grew up there. We spent our days interviewing people with gang associations, many of whom ended in the film playing versions of themselves. This was done to tell the story responsibly. Making sure each cast member had control over how they were represented took hundreds of hours of research, interviews and rewriting of the script. It was a delicate task to make sure that the reality of Guatemala City was reflected in the film as well. I always had the help, advice and guidance of an immensely talented creative team of Guatemalans, including producer Mauricio Escobar, exec producer Pamela Guinea, co-editor/mentor Cesar Díaz, production designer Fer Gálvez and dozens more creative heads and crew members.

How did you develop the character of Sarita? She makes a transition from a fairly conservative young woman to a woman who is capable of just about anything.

I discussed the character extensively with Karen Martínez, and with Tatiana Palomo, an acting coach. Together, we developed a general understanding that Cadejo Blanco begins as a mystery/thriller about a girl searching for her sister, and then slowly, it becomes a story about Sarita’s transformation. Karen approached Sarita’s arc like a coming-of-age story that forces a girl to toughen up with each hard decision she has to make, while looking for her sister and seeking revenge on all the men who may be responsible, knowing each new choice she makes could mean the end of her life.

This is a very violent and, at times, grueling film to watch. How do you think it will play internationally?

To stay close to the truth, a film with this subject matter had to include moments of violence, because it is part of the characters’ lives, but it was important to me to show that this violence doesn’t define them. So, it was my goal to use it sparingly, so that the film could spend more time illustrating their human side. My creative team decided to make the worst parts happen offscreen, and there are really only three moments in the film with explicit violence. The audience response so far regarding these scenes has been interesting, as several people have sworn that they saw more than we actually filmed.

Even though you are a foreigner, you are having a strong influence on the Guatemalan film industry. How do you see the future of filmmaking in Guatemala?

In the six years that I have called Guatemala my second home, I’ve noticed a new generation of filmmakers emerging that are dying to tell their stories after a long bout of silence, filmmakers who are questioning the current reality of the country with a very sharp, focused point of view. Directors like Jayro Bustamante and Cesar Diaz, for example, whose films are currently enjoying great international acclaim, have not only inspired and influenced “Cadejo Blanco,” but they have also made it possible for larger audiences outside of Guatemala’s borders to really get to know its current cinema.