Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante is at the Berlinale this year with his debut feature, “Ixanul Volcano” – a soothingly slow, sensitive film about a 17-year-old Mayan coffee plantation worker named Maria and her family living on the slopes of quietly rumbling volcano, while trying to survive in a culture and community that is rapidly becoming at odds with the modern world.
Maria, whose sad-eyed and impassive face is the opening shot of the film, is to be married to Ignancio, the boss of the coffee plantation owner. But Maria’s erotic desires lie elsewhere, namely in Pepe, a young coffee plantation worker who longs to escape to the United States and does in the end do so, but not before impregnating Maria, an act fraught with consequences that hang heavy on Maria and her superstitious mother and father.
Right from the beginning, Bustamante gives us a portrait of the daily routines that compose these people’s lives. In one of the first scenes Maria and her mother Juana haul an unwilling sow into a pen to force it to mate with a boar, a task which only succeeds after they force feed the two unfortunate pigs full bottles of rum; a pig’s throat is slit for sustenance; coffee beans are diligently harvested; gods are prayed to on the side of a volcano resembling a jagged moonscape, which gives the setting of the film an edge of the world feeling. Lush colored landscapes in natural lighting and scenes of observed ritual harmoniously compounded with the understated eroticism of the film provide an atmospheric image of the inherent contradictions that arise when tradition and desire come into conflict.
Bustmamante was not in unfamiliar territory, for he grew up very close to the Mayans and before filming returned to the community to hear their stories, using what he heard to build on the script. Sensitive to the sense of time and pace of a world wholly different from ours, Bustamante lets scenes unfold at the peaceful rhythm whereby this community live their lives, with the camera lingering over details, such as mother and daughter bathing naked together in a sauna-like steam room, allowing the viewer to just watch as image after beautiful image gracefully follows the other. Only after a tragic snakebite that transposes the location of the film to a nearby city is this wonderfully ponderous and calculated camera work transformed into the jumpiness and spontaneity that we associate with hand-held shot street documentaries.
Bustamante is careful not to Orientalize the characters, to turn them into something strange for us to gawk and wonder at. Rather he attempts to provide an emphatic image of a marginalized people trying to live their lives in their own way in a modernizing world that is no longer compatible with ancient tradition.
The Berlin Film Journal interviewed Jayro Bustamante about his work.
You grew up in a similar region and under similar circumstances under which the characters in the film live. How difficult was it to leave that culture behind?
I lived until I was 14 in the Guatemalan highlands, where 80 percent of the population is Kaqchikel [Mayan tribe] and 20 percent is Mestizo [of European and Native American descent]. I had a kind of similar way of living, not exactly the same as the Mayans portrayed in the film, but in a certain way I did want to go away and do other things elsewhere, so in that way it can be similar. Being myself a Mestizo we had more opportunities than the other Mayan populations, which is why I was able to go out of the country and study abroad.
When you returned to the area to do research for the film, did you find that it had changed a lot?
Yes, a lot. I think the way it has developed is the wrong way, because its not really well planned. Natural resources have been largely destroyed. In and around the volcano, it’s also impossible to develop that much, because it’s very dangerous. During the 1980’s in Guatemala there was a lot of malnutrition, so you could see a lot of starving children on the streets. But now you can see the same children obese, because of bad nutrition. That is one of the weird ways that it has developed.
How difficult was it to shoot in the community? It is very closed to filmmakers?
In a certain way they can be closed communities, especially when these families live in isolation. But some of them also live in towns, so they are usually a lot more accessible. For example, the actresses live in a town and are bi-lingual. They speak Spanish and Kaqchikel, and are more open. If this had been filmed as a documentary, where you go inside their homes, it would have been a lot harder. That’s why all the locations were constructed, so we really didn’t get into the community for this film.
There is a scene where the mother tells the daughter not to believe in all the superstitions that she is told. Was that to reflect the idea that perhaps to Mayans themselves don’t believe in their traditions anymore?
No, in that scene Juana [the mother] represents a healthy way of having these types of beliefs. She practices them, but has limits to what she believes in. That’s in contrast with the spiritual guide, because when they [the spiritual guides] are radical in their beliefs they cause people to make mistakes as in the scene with the snakes. But that can happen in all religions and practices.
How did you do the casting, especially for the two main actresses?
At first I did social work and we had workshops with women. They would come to the workshops and talk about their troubles and experiences. That was an inspiration for the writing of the film as well. I thought I would get the casting from these workshops, but when I talked to them I found out that not everyone wanted to act, and that they were not really interested in acting. So I had to find a more typical way of finding the actors. We went to a town at the foot of the volcano, and we rented a spot in the local market with a sign that said “Casting”. We had a camera and notebook, so that we could write down all their data. Of course, no one came. The next day we changed the sign to “Jobs Offered”, and there was as a huge line of people waiting. That’s how I found Maria Telon [Juana]. She works in a community theater and works very hard for women’s rights. When writing the script I had another image of Juana in mind, and when I first saw Maria Telon I was not convinced, but I followed her through several towns and watched her act.
What are some directors and films that influence you as a filmmaker?
I would love to have a lot of phrases and to know where the inspiration comes from, but I really don’t. But I do respect Terrence Malick and his work, as well as Michael Haneke and his serious melodramas. For the image look of the film Malick was an inspiration, because we knew that we wouldn’t have any artificial lighting, so we studied how he managed to create these images using only natural light.
This is the first film from Guatemala to be screened at the Berlinale. What is the film industry like in Guatemala? Are there lots of filmmakers or studios?
There is not a real film industry in Guatemala right now. But there is an emerging film making culture. People from my generation that want to do film in Guatemala usually had to go out of the country and study abroad. The first film school in Guatemala was opened only 10 years ago, so it’s just starting. There are no laboratories, no cameras, or funds.
Pepe and Maria want to escape to the United States. What is the relationship between Guatemala and the United States?
The problem with Guatemala is that it is a country with a destroyed identity. Our identity was destroyed by many historical events. Usually we want to be other things, but not Guatemalan, or maybe worse in that it’s difficult for us to be ourselves. That’s why we are always thinking that it’s better somewhere else. Actually, Guatemala is a kind of backyard colony of the United States. Culturally it’s very influenced by the US. About 20 minutes away from the location of the film is a McDonald’s, so it’s very influenced.