Earlier this month we attended the TIFF screening of and reviewed “La Llorona” (“The Weeping Woman”), the third feature length film by acclaimed Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante. The film, which we viewed as a topsy turvy re-imagining of an old Latin American film, powerfully showcases themes of motherhood, corruption, ethnic discrimination, and unaccounted-for crimes against humanity that today pervade Guatemala and are relevant to all Latin American countries. The topics are of equal import to U.S.-based Latinx people, as a contextual reminder of the forces that drove a lot of our ancestors to come to this country in the first place.
At TIFF, we also had the privilege of speaking with Bustamante himself about his film and the motifs he explores in them. Read on as we discuss “La Llorona,” Latin American film, and pressing societal issues with the young and immensely talented director.
J. Don Birnam/AwardsCircuit: First of all, congrats on the reception for “La Llorona.” Take me back to 2015 when your first film, “Ixcanul,” became only the second ever Guatemalan film submitted to the Academy Awards, what did you feel?
Jayro Bustamante: In a country like Guatemala where there is no film industry to speak of and you are always working, there is little time to “feel” or to celebrate. When I made “Ixcanul” and we won all those prizes, I decided it was a movie we could send to the Oscars. So, I went to Guatemala and convinced people to create a film academy group to select films for submissions. When that happened, we had to start finding financing for our campaign in Los Angeles. Let’s just say that a good thing always leads to more work!
JDB: What movie do you have eligible for this year?
JB: This year we have “Temblores” (“Quakes”), we are still in theaters in Guatemala, in our fourth week, and it is going well. We had a boycott campaign coming from politicians, claiming that the European Union paid me a half a million Euros to destroy traditional Guatemalan family values [with the film’s depiction of homosexuality] but I think the campaign actually helped us.
As discussed in our review, in “La Llorona” Bustamante exposes the truth about the traditional myth: it was not a woman who took the kids of parents in Guatemala, but corrupt and murderous generals. Bustamante agreed. “I’ve always found it interesting that ‘La Llorona,’ along with the Virgin of Guadalupe and ‘La Malinche’ are the three most beloved iconic symbols in Mesoamerica,” he said. “How crazy that one of the figures we admire most is only used to dictate how women are supposed to behave,” he continued. “So I wanted to use that theme and use her more like a metaphor of this mother-land, mother Latin America, that talks about all the genocides we have lived since the [Spanish] Conquest, of all the tears that have been spilled for these missing people, and above all the story of the indigenous people that were disappeared because they are indigenous do not matter to the people.”
Given the brave subject matter of his film, it is no wonder that Latin American activism hero and Nobel Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchu gladly agreed to have a small cameo, during a scene depicting the trial of the central character/dictator. On he how managed to procure this Bustamante said: “From the beginning of the film I spoke to the associations of people looking for their disappeared loved ones. We held ceremonies to ask for permission from the souls of the disappeared, to explain we would use their stories for the film. One of the first people I spoke to about this was Rigoberta, and then I invited her to appear in the movie and she accepted without hesitation.”
Menchu is only one of several key female characters in “La Llorona.” Bustamante explained his attraction to the strong female figure in his work. “I feel like everyone in Latin America experiences this, the strong female figure,” he said. “We see her, we feel her, and we know women are super strong, that they deserve the same rights but we do not always afford them to women. This is something I like to analyze in my films.”
But femininity is but one of the many hot button topics that Bustamante’s work tackles head on. Societal differences, classicism, and racism against indigenous people are all front and center, as they are in the cultural conversations in Latin America today. On how different films from the region analyze the subject matter, he said, “‘Roma‘ discusses the societal differences issue with the melancholy of the past. In Guatemala this is the present we live. Discrimination continues to be very real in Guatemala. We do not even make an effort to hide it in Guatemala; we like to seem racist, and classicist. We like it, it is treated as a good thing. This is another thing that people do not want to talk about.”
But he has hope that art can have some impact on this. “I do not make movies just for entertainment,” he explained. “I hope that we can have an impact. Though I am already branded a ‘communist’ and ‘leftist’ in Guatemala,” he added with a chuckle. “But, because people do not want to talk about these things, hopefully film can prompt the dialogue,” he said more seriously.
Time—and perhaps future awards recognition by the Academy—will only tell whether Jayro Bustamante’s important work has the desired and urgently needed effect in prompting conversations about difficult topics in Latin American countries.