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‘Ixcanul’ Director Jayro Bustamante On the Strength of Mayan Women and Guatemala’s Indigenous Majority

The director of Guatemala's most famous film talks about its unconventional creation and reception.


Ingrained millenary practices and forbidding modern concerns unfold simultaneously against the backdrop of dark volcanic stone, colorful attires, rural duties, and perpetual mysticism, in a film that’s as aesthetically exquisite as it’s gruelingly bold in its quest to be fueled by unrestrained reality. Jayro Bustamante’s “Ixcanul” is an ethereal masterpiece whose breathtaking beauty is layered with sociopolitical undertones while always honoring the indigenous people at its center and, more specifically, its women’s unwavering and restrained strength waiting to be unleashed.

This profoundly affecting story follows Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), a Kaqchikel Mayan young woman, who lives with her parents near in the outskirts of a volcano near a coffee plantation. This land, its scent, its colors, and its people are all she’s ever known and all she’s ever wanted until now. When an arranged marriage threatens to put an end to her apparent freedom, Maria considers the possibility of venturing far from home and seeing what’s beyond the mountains, but her naïve eagerness to escape will place her in the crossfire between romantic betrayal, dangerous rituals, and the unwelcoming urban world.

Bustamante juxtaposes Maria’s unnerving coming of age story with her mother Juana’s (María Telón) efforts to salvage the family’s future by abiding by tradition. Within these two parallel experiences there is an urgency to bring attention to the vulnerability of Guatemala’s Mayan population who are rarely given a voice.“Ixcanul” is a fierce artistic triumph coated with complexity, subtle poetry, and a delicate ability for capturing its characters’ introspective dilemmas through its imagery. Such showcase of attuned sensibilities is expected from a seasoned auteur at the peak of his creative powers, but Jayro Bustamante has accomplished just that with his astonishing debut feature. No wonder “Ixcanul” is Guatemala’s most acclaimed film ever and the winner of numerous international awards including the Alfred Bauer Award at the Berlin International Film festival.

We talked to Bustamante about the his relationship to the Mayan community where the film was shot, the male chauvinist societies that hinder women’s growth, his homeland’s institutionalize discrimination against indigenous people, and the incomparable visual allure of “Ixcanul.”

The film focuses on these two women who are every strong in distinct ways; however, they are faced with extraordinary circumstances that test that strength. How did the idea to write a story about these two connected characters come about?

The idea was born from a real story, the story of a real Maria. What’s really inspired in her life is the third act, the problematic situation with the baby. Based on that I started to create this fictional screenplay but always grounded on real things that I had seen in Guatemala. I grew up in that region and I asked myself, “How does one become the perfect victim?” just as Maria is in the film. That’s how I started building this story. I had two very clear themes I wanted to work on: one was loss and the other maternity. In order for the loss and that sort of prohibition to become a mother that is imposed on Maria to feel as powerful as they do in the movie, I needed to construct a kind of maternity that was beautiful, without idealizing it but highlighting it. That’s why I created the relationship between these two women. Throughout the process I always worked with the actresses as if the two characters were one. We always thought that Maria, if she had been given the chance, would have become
Juana. She would have been just as strong as her. That’s how we worked on these two characters.

While Juana is the matriarch and often appears to be charge, she still lives in a male-driven society where her needs and desires are secondary to those of the men around. Was it important for you to depict the internal strength of these Mayan women while also being honest about the world they live in?

From the beginning my intention was to adhere to reality, except for the magical realist touches that I also wanted the film to have because they were very important. Magical realism doesn’t work if the real reality doesn’t exist. There is a great contradiction in male chauvinist societies, and that is that they are usually composed of matriarchal groups. A woman reigns but she always reigns in a small space that the man left for her. She reigns when the man needs someone to be in charge of things that he doesn’t want to take care of. For me that matriarchy is till is part of this male chauvinism or “machismo” and that matriarchy continues to feed it. If I’m against male chauvinism, I should also be against matriarchy because both extremes are bad and one is derived from the other.

What I really wanted to demonstrate was that there is a waste of feminine energy that happens in male chauvinist societies.To get from point A to point B, a woman has to embark on an incredible journey through everything that’s in between these two points and have a great strategy to be able to get there. This journey would be so much easier if we would let her take those steps and then with her own strength she can get wherever she wants to go. I wanted to talk about that strength and that’s why there is that parallel relationship between Maria and the volcano. There is something symbolic about it. For me, Mayan women in Guatemala today are like that volcano that rumbles and resounds but hasn’t yet erupted. Real change will happen when these women erupt and release what they have inside. That’s the metaphor we wanted to convey, the connection between these women and the volcano.

One of the greatest achievements of the film is that it refrains from observing the characters from an ethnographic perspective or with an air of exoticism. These are people. Yes, people with different traditions and experiences from what many consider normal, but they are still as human as anybody else.

Definitely. I never had that temptation or that perspective because I grew up there, so for me there is no difference between us. I wouldn’t do it with any other culture. That’s something I can’t understand, to think there are people that one can observe like if they were in a zoo. I don’t think that’s right. Rich cultural differences show us the diversity that exists in the world, but if you explore any of these differences you’ll see that we all have the same human feelings. That’s what allowed me to make a story that was very local but that at the same time could have certain international repercussion. I wrote a film about a woman whose problems take us into the problems of a family and that in turn takes us into the larger social problems. That’s what we wanted to do from the beginnings. That can’t be done if the feelings that belong to the universal language are not present.



Indigenous languages are rarely used in modern cinema and because of this indigenous people have in a sense become both faceless and voiceless. How crucial was it for you to make the film in the Mayan language?

It was very important. Perhaps there is a bit of melancholy because as I said I grew up there. I had a nanny that taught me a lot of things, a lot of traditional stories, and who also taught me that language when I was a young child. Maybe this melancholy is there, but above all this, language is the clearest example to demonstrate how a large portion of the country lives without the tools to grow and evolve in its own country. They are foreigners in their own country, but they are the majority. Today statistics say that these people represent only 40% of the Guatemalan population, but that’s a lie. Discrimination is so strong that if you are Mayan and during the census or on a survey they ask you, “Are you Mayan?” you prefer to say that you are mestizo or mixed because you are ashamed to say who you really are. The social fracture is so big that in Guatemala the worse insult you can tell somebody is calling him or her an “Indian.”

Something similar happens in Mexico, where I’m from. People tend to associate indigenous languages, features, or traditions with negative ideas or as something that’s less sophisticated or worthy, which is terrible. 

When you think about it, if the worse insult is to be who you are, even if you are the majority in a country, it means that the majority of the country has a terrible complex regarding their identity. If you are trying to improve yourself or overcome this circumstances, these ideas make very complicated emotionally. There are many themes that we touch on in the film that are derived from discrimination. When I travel abroad I get asked a lot, “Why does Pepe want to go to the US?” Maybe you and I can understand why this young man wants to leave. The reason why he wants to leave is obvious to those of us who are from countries like Mexico and Guatemala. He earns one dollar a day in Guatemala and in the U.S. he could earn, let’s say, $15 an hour. It’s true that in the U.S. he could be discriminated for being Latino, but he is already being discriminated in Guatemala, his own country, because he’s Mayan. He has a lot more to win than to lose by leaving. That’s very sad.



Tell me about the process of finding your actors and how challenging this was. You evidently needed people who were Mayan and who spoke the language, but also that could pull off the intricate performances the film required.

That was the most beautiful part of the process, to work with the actors. I started hosting workshops, more regarding social issues, in the place were I grew up. I grew up in the outskirts of the Atitlán Lake in the highlands, which is a volcanic lake. It’s about two hours away from the location where we were going to shoot. I was accompanied by a social worker. The idea was to open spaces to discuss the problems facing the Mayan community so that the social worker could hear their concerns and follow up. This would help me enrich the screenplay and find the actresses there.

In a way this also reflected the reality of the country, although there were many women that were interested in working with me, there were also many of them that didn’t want to be part of the project. I thought all of them would want to, but I was wrong, a lot of them didn’t. Those that I wanted to work with and that wanted to work with me had another problem. Their husbands, their brother, their sons, or any other male in charge wouldn’t give them permissions to participate. They couldn’t come be part of the project because they had to stay home to serve them.

While this was happening and we were trying to figure things out, I met Maria Telón, who plays Juana. She is part of a street theater group. It’s a militant theater group that advocates for indigenous rights and women rights. They were putting on a play at that time, and I started following her performances from town to town. When we finally got to her community, I discovered that this community is very prosperous and very curious about the arts. I decided to stay there to do the casting. We held auditions at the local market. We set up our own stand among fruits and vegetable stands and we put up a sign that said, “Casting.” We had a camera and a notepad. Nobody came.

The next day we change the sign to, “Help Wanted,” and the entire town came. Thanks to that we were able to meet everyone in town and that’s where we cast the actors. We worked with them for threes months before filming the first scene. It was a very enriching process because besides the fact that they were Kaqchikel Mayans they had nothing in common with the characters. They live in a very prosperous society with all the basic services. Maria Mercedes is a student and Maria Telón is an actress and a saleswoman. She has a very different life form the character of the mother. Manuel Antún, the man who played Maria’s father, is a dentist, and Marvin Coroy, the guy who plays El Pepe, is a poet. We really did a lot of work to characterize this family so they could really look like a family and like they live in this very different situation.



Once you had cast them, what was your approach to eliciting the emotions you wanted from the actors. María Mercedes Coroy‘s performance in particular is very quiet but marvelously moving.

We didn’t have a particular technique. We worked a lot on trusting one another. With Maria Mercedes we worked on her confidence as a woman. It wasn’t that she wasn’t a confident woman, but we talked a lot about the strength that she had within herself. She was worried about playing a character that might falsely seem passive. It’s not that the character is passive, but on paper it might seem that way because everything is internalized. I believe this is one of the hardest types of characters to bring to life. We also worked on the power of her gaze. She allowed me to explore her personal life and her past in order to find in her own experiences emotions she could use while we were shooting. One week we decided to kiss tress. We went to a forest and we decided to kiss trees. She started kissing tress on one side of the forest and I did it in the other. In the end we ended up kissing the same one [Laughs]. It was about earning each other’s trust and losing all shame.

Visually the film is absolutely breathtaking. There is the natural beauty of the locations and a very evocative atmosphere throughout the entire film. How did you and your DP, Luis Armando Arteaga, approach to the cinematography and minimalist aesthetic of the story, which is definitely a fantastic element of “Ixcanul”?

We’ve known each other for along time. We worked together on my last short film and we have developed other projects together. He is someone who has a vision of cinema that goes beyond that of a DP. We did something very interesting, which was to go to a festival that’s sort of like the Cannes Film Festival for short films. It’s called Clermont-Ferrand International Film Festival. We were there for a week watching all the short films. Our interest was to watch as many as possible because filmmakers are more daring when making short films. There are new technologies that they are willing to try on short films and there is less financial risk. You can watch a lot of them in a short period of time.  A big part of our job was watching these short films.

After that we talked a lot about the trap that this location could be because it’s a really beautiful location. You can drop your camera by accident and the photo that’s taken is already a postcard. Of course, I’m exaggerating but it’s really that beautiful. We talked about finding that postcard-like image and getting as far away from it as possible. We wanted to stay within the characters’ intimacy. We both really wanted to shoot it on 16mm, and we couldn’t because of financial constraints, so we shot it on a digital camera. Since we shot on digital, we did a lot of work to create that grainy quality that film gives you. We used the volcano’s dust and a lot of smoke. We had someone who would create smoke for every scene. Every single scene you see in the film had smoke, in varying densities, but they all had smoke. Then we were able to do the post-production in France in one of the best studios, which was amazing.

There is a certain mysticism to the story that we see through several rituals and this community’s connection to nature, and the volcano in particular. Tell me about including these otherworldly beliefs and spiritual offerings in the narrative. Why did you feel they were an important characteristic of this society?

All of these elements are things that I’ve seen myself or that still exist. In terms of the mysticism, for me, instead of trying to tell a spiritual story I wanted to tell a purely religious story. There is a Mayan religion today that’s a mix between Catholicism and the Mayan beliefs that remained after the Spanish empire fell. My characters live in a grave situation, one in which the only thing they do is try resolve their multiple problems. That’s why whenever a new problem arrives they act in such a tolerant manner, because they can’t add fuel to the fire. What they have to do is put it out. When you are in situations like these, normally human beings have the tendency to seek answers and hope in something bigger than them. If they were a Catholic family I would have focused on the Catholic religion. I wanted to also talk about the problem with religions. Religions are dogmas and rules represented by a leader that could lead you into the wrong path. This was the message. It was more of a religious message than a spiritual or Mayan message.

Regarding the rituals you see in the film, they are all based on rituals that are still being practiced today. Even us, before shooting we would lit a sacred fire to ask the volcano for permission. When we shot in the coffee plantation we also had a sacred fire there. It’s a very nice thing because you lit a fire and the ceremony lasts till the fire extinguishes by itself. It’s the fire that tells you when the ceremony is over. In the meantime you are sharing energy with the people around you. You tell the earth what you are going to be doing there. It’s about communicating and about the energy flow. When the fire is out you end up way too relaxed, so we started substituting the sacred fires for the yoga exercises. [Laughs]. It’s very interesting and it’s something that’s still done all the time.

In the final act you take your characters out of their community and expose them to urban Guatemala. In that moment these two worlds seem to clash and how little their know about each other.

The film was constructed in crescendo from the beginning. I was lucky enough to conceive the ending very early on in the process and because of this I started working backwards towards the beginning of the story. Instead of wanting to say, “Oh poor indigenous people” or “Wow these westerners are terrible,” what I wanted to talk about was the lack of social tools they have and how in this country a large segment of the population is left without basic services. Well, in Guatemala today even people who have  all the tools and resources can still be left without the basic services because politicians stole all the money and nothing is working. But for indigenous people things are even worse. They are even lower in the list of the government’s priorities. That was the intention behind taking the characters out of their environment and into the city.

Has the film started a conversation or a dialogue regarding about discrimination and other issues currently affecting this segment of the population and Guatemala in general?

Yes, I’m really amazed about it. When I started speaking to the press in Guatemala about the film, I said that Guatemalans needed to learn how to watch films because it appeared to me that people were unable to analyze films. When “Ixcanul” opened in movie theaters it became a small success considering that it’s an art house film. We were in theaters for 7 weeks, which was great. After that, I found a lot reviews and articles about the film written by Guatemalans. These were profound analyzes and very well written.

Some were very self-critical regarding the country’s situation. I realized that I was wrong, Guatemalans are able to do these analyzes, but they get to see very few films that warrant it. You are not going to write a profound analysis about “Fast and Furious,” there is not much to analyze there. You watch it and you talk about it candidly, but you don’t spend much time thinking about an American blockbuster. That was very surprising and very gratifying for me, to see that people in Guatemala wrote criticism and self-analyze the country through the film. Soon after the film’s premier one of the most important newspapers in Guatemala published an article entitled, Ixcanul is a Slap on Guatemala’s Face. The journalist wrote about the country’s current social situation in relation to the film.

When you are in another country does it surprise you that perhaps your film is the first contact people abroad have with Guatemala as a country and even more so with its cinema? “Ixcanul” is by far the most talked about and the most internationally acclaimed Guatemalan film ever.

No, it doesn’t surprise me that we are not a very well known country or that we are country only known because of the difficult political situations we are going through. It doesn’t surprise me because we as a country haven’t done anything for this to be different. Everything we’ve done prompted people outside to see us just the way they see us. It’s what we deserve in a sense. We are also a very small country. When it comes to tourism we are very interesting country, but we are very small country that has been in an arm conflict for so long that obviously tourists don’t come. Then there are all the problems with the gangs, cartels, kidnappings, and all the other bad things you can think of.

It’s understandable that we are not well known. At first I believed that the point of entry could be the Mayan civilization because I thought that would be well known abroad, and I’ve realized that not so much. There is still a lot to teach and share about Guatemala with the world, which is good. Something that I still find especially surprising is this idea that the Mayans disappeared or vanished. It’s crazy to me that people still believe that, but I can understand why. It’s very interesting to me that people around world, even in places as far as Japan, connect with the emotions that the film exudes. That’s the nicest compliment. I’ve also had people in other countries tell me, “You are the first Guatemalan I’ve ever seen.” I tell them, “Touch me! I’m real”

Kino Lorber will release “Ixcanul” on Friday, August 19.

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