Jayro Bustamante’s hypnotic debut feature IXCANUL is Guatemala’s first-ever submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar® — and one of the 11 films screening in the New Auteurs section at AFI FEST 2015.
It follows a young Mayan woman living at the base of a volcano, who becomes pregnant outside of an impending arranged marriage, throwing her and her family’s future into dire uncertainty. AFI spoke with Bustmante about the film.
AFI: This film was made in close collaboration with a real Mayan farming community in Guatemala. What were the highpoints and challenges of that collaboration?
JAYRO BUSTAMANTE: The shooting was done in extreme conditions due to the reduced budget, the precariousness of the workplace and the fact that we were shooting on an active volcano. In order to achieve concentration and total commitment from the actors, we worked intensely on building their trust in me as well as with the rest of the team. The characters in the film and the actors don’t have much in common, other than their Mayan identity. The actors live in a community with access to most of the public services and close to Antigua, one of the most important cities in Guatemala, only 10 minutes away. The characterization work was important and we worked together for three months before shooting the first scene. In a way, they taught me how to direct them and the whole process was of permanent exchange and learning.
The tone and rural location of your film have been compared to the cinema of Werner Herzog. Were you influenced or inspired by Herzog’s films when making IXCANUL — or did you have other film inspirations?
I am flattered to be compared to such a great filmmaker, but my influences came more from the Guatemalan reality. For me, Mayans are not part of an exotic world. In Guatemala, the Mayans are the majority, and the country is also mostly rural. I simply wanted to film that face of Guatemala that constitutes part of my childhood and my development, because that is where I grew up. When we prepared IXCANUL, we studied Lucrecia Martel’s films, for the realism that she manages in the family relations and in the way she works with sound. We also studied the way that Terrence Malick works with natural lighting. Michael Haneke is also a filmmaker that interests me [very] much, because of his capacity to address drama, always respecting the line of realism.
The performances in this film are naturalistic and compelling. Particularly impressive was the actress who plays the mother, who in many ways becomes the co-lead of the film. What was the process of working with your actors to get these performances?
The story was built under two guidelines: “Motherhood” and “Loss.” Both female characters represent these guidelines as one. I wanted both characters to form a balance. With the actresses we [spent a lot of time working with them], time was important, but not time to correct a particular technique. I mean the time necessary to create links between individuals. Once these links were created, we searched for the emotions in the personal experiences of each one, even if they were not the same as indicated in the script. We used the feelings in their experiences. For example, in reality Maria Mercedes Coroy is a student, Maria Telon is an actress in street theater and owns a food stand at the local market, Manuel Antun is a dental technician, Justo Lorenzo is a physical education teacher and Marvin Coroy writes poems. It really took intense work to create this family and this story.
What does your film mean to you? Has it taken on special meaning in light of the recent political upheaval in Guatemala?
The force of the volcano — the Mayan language in general is a visual and conceptual tongue. “Ixcanul” means volcano in Mayan Cakchiquel, one of many Mayan tongues that are spoken in our country (over 20). The Mayan Cakchiquel tongue has more than one word meaning volcano, but “Ixcanul” makes reference to the internal force inside the mountain, the energy about to erupt. For me the volcano always represented an alter ego to Maria’s character — because the Mayan women have always been situated in oppression — that at some point would have to explode. But I never expected that this comparison would be transferred to the whole country. Today, Guatemala has just experienced a pacifist revolution against its leaders: the whole country mobilized to punish corruption, sending the president and vice president of the Republic to prison. This popular “explosion” had not happened since the 1940s. When IXCANUL was released in Guatemala we used the slogan “The force of the volcano.” Many used that same slogan during the manifestations [protests], appropriating this comparison to IXCANUL. It was an honor for us.
If there’s one thing you hope AFI FEST audiences take away from IXCANUL, what would it be?
For me, festivals are a great opportunity to show the movie to different audiences. To show IXCANUL in Los Angeles at AFI FEST is a challenge. Here, I would like to find an audience that sympathizes and supports us. I really hope that people will discover and appreciate the movie. Guatemala as a country has very little resources to diffuse as we would like.
IXCANUL screens at AFI FEST 2015 on November 8 and 9.