A Google search for Guatemalan submissions for the International Feature Oscar will yield just three titles, and two of them are directed by Jayro Bustamante, the queer 43-year-old director and screenwriter behind this year’s entry “La Llorona.” That’s because there’s no real movie industry in Guatemala, his native country, where you could count the number of films made each year on one hand. Bustamante wanted to do something about it, and so he founded La Casa De Producción in 2009 to give natives “an opportunity to become icons, and to become actors, and not just people who see films,” as he explained to IndieWire. “There is not any help coming from the state, and there are no private investors. It’s a completely individual effort coming from the directors.”
More than a decade later, Guatemala is finally on the international cinema map thanks to “La Llorona,” Bustamante’s allegorical horror tale now on the shortlist for the Best International Feature Oscar. The film draws on the genocidal reign of José Efraín Ríos Montt, who died in 2018 but whose crimes still haunt the land, to weave a spooky tale of class disparity and the systematic slaughtering of indigenous people that devastated Guatemala in the second half of the 20th century.
And, as Bustamante says, those crimes under a fallen military regime whose shadow still looms are ones that many Guatemalan audiences still don’t want to talk about.
“I decided to package the movie as a horror film,” he said, after conducting market research that revealed most Guatemalans watch superhero and horror movies. “It was so logical to make a film to talk about genocide through the horror genre. There is one audience who wants to talk about it, that if we confront problems we can find resolutions. I don’t want to say a cure. But there is another kind of people who just want to deny the history, and continue living without looking behind.”
“La Llorona” accessibly turns a haunted house into a microcosm for the sins of the Guatemalan government and the tension between its complacent, bourgeois parties and the native people they either destroyed or ignored. The movie was released stateside last year on the popular genre film streaming platform Shudder, and international recognition has turned the film into a kind of “national standard,” Bustamante said. It has already elevated the country’s profile in terms of cinematic contributions. It also helped that the film plays off the entrenched Latin American folktale of La Llorona, the weeping ghost of a woman who mourns an inevitable loss.
AMC/courtesy Everett Collection
“La Llorona was a kind of divinity, or a Mesoamerican princess, who has that power to understand the future, and she cried when she understood that something very bad will happen to her people. And after the Spanish colonization came, they changed the meaning and La Llorona became an indigenous woman in love with a Spanish man who left her. She cries, and not only cries, she kills her children because she was suffering, and wanted revenge.”
Bustamante said he wanted to turn the misogynist roots of the myth inside out. “We came back to the original myth to say that La Llorona is not a monster as we see in other films” (like 2019’s worldwide box-office sleeper “The Curse of La Llorona,” for one). “She is a princess looking for justice. She is not crying for men; she is crying for more relevant things like the suffering of her people.”
In “La Llorona,” the princess is reimagined as Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), a young woman who, with just a few words, brings supernatural vibes into the home of a fictional dictator whose conviction of genocide is, at the last minute, overturned — to the outrage of Mayan people seeking redemption for their pillaged ancestors.
Bustamante first worked with Mercedes Coroy on his 2015 Berlin Silver Bear winner “Ixcanul,” a Guatemalan Oscar submission that missed the shortlist despite critical acclaim (and only the second entry ever after 1994’s “The Silence of Neto”). He also brought another “Ixcanul” star back to “La Llorona”: María Telón, who plays a Kaqchikel maid who remains of service to the disgraced dictator and his family despite protests from her fellow indigenous community.
“When I built my company in Guatemala, I knew that the industry was just emerging and we had to, in a way, form the people we work with,” Bustamante said. “We became their agents. We wanted to give them more work, so when I start working on other films, for sure I have them in my mind and in my universe, but I really wanted to propose them [for] different roles to have that chameleonic quality.”
AMC/courtesy Everett Collection
Mercedes Coroy’s performance wields an eerie power, and a commanding agency in spite of her presence as a mostly silent, ghostly figure haunting the halls. “We didn’t want to have another story of an indigenous woman playing a maid in a film,” Bustamante said. “It’s a big cliché for us, but in this film it was very important because for my society, people think that women working in a house have to do everything, but people don’t want to feel them. In a way, they are looking for a ghost, living in the same house, doing things, but without existence. María Mercedes really understands that. She brought to me the story of her [Kaqchikel] grandma and her mother, and how these women suffered during the war in Guatemala, so we built the character for that.”
“La Llorona” is steeply rooted in the oral and cultural traditions of Guatemala, and to bring grounded verisimilitude to an otherwise fantastic genre piece, Bustamante integrated native languages into the film, and brought indigenous non-actors to play supporting roles or extras. “We had a Mayan ceremony to invite all of the disappeared people, too, and the souls of those people to ask their permission to use their names, their presence,” Bustamante said. “I know that is magical realism, but we really felt them working with us.”
Bustamante said that with projects like “La Llorona,” “I really believe that in two years, we will have big movies in our country.” In a most unorthodox Oscar year, “La Llorona” is surely one of the most widely seen international contenders, and one as impeccably crafted as anything to come out of the contemporary wave of searing horror stories around the world.
“La Llorona” is in contention for the Best International Feature Academy Award, and is currently available to stream on Shudder.