This Mayan-Language Film Is The Best Thing In Theaters Right Now

"Ixcanul" is an arresting story about two strong indigenous women. Go see it.

You’ve almost certainly never seen a film made by Guatemalans. But then, neither have most Guatemalans. Turns out we’re all watching the same stuff. “People here are obsessed with American blockbusters,” says Jayro Bustamante, writer-director of Guatemala’s most award-winning film. “All of the TV is American, all of the fashion is American, the cities are constructed like in the U.S. People think that Miami is the capital of our country!”

Bustamante’s film “Ixcanul” (which translates roughly to “volcano” in the Mayan language of Kaqchikel) presents something different. It is the story of two strong indigenous Mayan women, mother and daughter. Currently enjoying a 100 percent critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it arrived in U.S. theaters this month.

We spoke with Jayro Bustamante for Sophia, a project to collect life lessons from fascinating people (fyi: no spoilers here). His film’s depiction of Mayan language and culture is especially rare, he said, even in Guatemala where indigenous people make up roughly half the population. “The racism in Guatemala is very crude and very strong.” Bustamante recalled being taught Kaqchikel as a child but told not to speak it in public to avoid bullying; he described theatergoers in Guatemala laughing when “Ixcanul” was first released. “[People] feel the language is part of the past and not part of the progress we have made in the country.”

But the film has emerged a success, its young star a national celebrity. “Ixcanul” is now kicking off its third theatrical run in Guatemala, and actor María Mercedes Coroy recently became the first-ever indigenous woman to grace the cover of a top Guatemalan fashion magazine.

Why did you decide to shoot this film in the Kaqchikel language?

The real woman who told me the story behind the film, her name is also María, and she speaks Kaqchikel, so there’s a factual basis to it. But there’s a personal link too. I grew up in this area until I was 14. I’m not Mayan, I’m mixed. But I grew up with my nana, a Mayan Kaqchikel woman, who taught me the language. And I remember, she would tell me not to speak it in public. She wanted to protect me.

The racism in Guatemala is very crude and very strong. When “Ixcanul” first came to theaters, people would say, “Why would I see that? I can watch plenty of Indians in the street.” It’s really crude like that. People would be laughing at the film in the theater just because they see a Mayan woman on the screen, like “Ahh, there is an Indian!” Really, like that. They feel the language is part of the past and not part of the progress we have made in the country.


What helped change the perception was the international press. At the end, Guatemalans couldn’t attack the film because they said, “If the other countries love it, we have to love it, too.”

So yes, about sixty percent of the population in Guatemala is Mayan. But the media is not, it’s Spanish-speaking. So, 60 percent is Mayan, 30 percent is mixed, and 10 is more white.

And there were some Mayan activists who attacked the film, who said you can’t talk about the Mayan people if you are not one. It gets quite complicated. But it’s understandable too, because we are a country that has just started making films about our own culture. This is the first time people have a mirror to themselves. They’re understanding that this is a particular work fiction, that we are not saying, “This is all of Guatemala and this is all Mayan people and this is all women.” So there is some controversy now, but it’s to be expected because it’s the first time.

You talk about Kaqchikel being a very visual language, very symbolic.

Yes, it’s super conceptual. When you say “volcano” ― “ixcanul” ― it doesn’t just mean “volcano.” It is more something like, “the internal force of the mountain which is boiling and looking for eruption.” It’s very beautiful. The subtitles you see in the U.S. are really more interpretations than direct translations.

Even that word “ixcanul” ― normally, if we use our characters to write it, I think the correct form actually starts with “x,” like a ch-sound. “Xcanul.” But I decided to put the letter “I” before the word because “ix-” is the feminine prefix in the language. So when we say “Ixcanul,” it is a kind of female volcano. I loved this idea because the word “ixcanul” alludes to the strength built up inside the mountain. So at the end it is a volcano, but it’s more conceptual.


You ended up finding the cast members of your film by first setting up social workshops, is that right?

At the beginning, I really wanted to work with women from my town, so I partnered with social workers to set up workshops in the area where I grew up. We wanted to give women the space to talk about the problems that we highlight in the film, but to use theater to allow them to talk using a character. It was very moving; they felt a kind of freedom doing that.

After that, when we actually started working on the film, we tried to cast some of the parts from these workshops, but we couldn’t do it. The women couldn’t go shoot for three months near the volcano, three hours away, because the men in the region wouldn’t permit it. It is this “machismo” that still resonates in Guatemala.

Eventually I met María Telón, who played the role of the mother. She’s a widow, so in a way, she’s free. She brought me to another Kaqchikel town, Santa María de Jesús, and there I found this community that was totally open and curious about the arts. They have a lot of Mayan festivals, dance, poetry; this is very unique in the region. So I decided to cast it there. Working with these actors was the most beautiful part of the process.

Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters

María Telón is a very strong woman. She has four kids and works hard to be a good mother. She’s still working in the market, selling fruit, and she’s still casting for other films, because there is a kind of emerging film moment happening in Guatemala.

María Mercedes is interesting, too. She has really become a celebrity in Guatemala. This might sound like a superficial thing, but it’s a political thing too: She made the cover of a fashion magazine in Guatemala, and it’s the first time that a Mayan woman has ever been on the cover of this magazine. I think it’s even the first time that someone with black hair was on the cover. So it’s very important for us.

I might be exaggerating, she may not be the very first with black hair, but really, she is a Mayan woman who is establishing their beauty as equal. That is very important. She has a campaign for Pepsi now, and she became an ambassador talking about the rights of young women. She’s learning a lot of things and she’s trying to break stereotypes. I’m really proud about María Mercedes’ work after the film.

Are there any books that have had a major impact on your intellectual development?

I think magic realism is very important. It is so much a part of the cultural thinking in Guatemala. Miguel Ángel Asturias, he was the father of the magical realism; after him, the Colombian writers spread it into the States. But we all live, really, in a magical realism in Guatemala. There is so much diversity, there are so many cultures and languages and religions and sects, such impressive differences for a very small territory. I know that this movement influenced me all my life.

I’ll also mention a book that I’m reading right now. “Pornografia” by Witold Gombrowicz. There is a very important message in this book: that you can end up manipulating people even if you don’t want, and that the process of doing that becomes a kind of pornography. Very interesting.

Does the film’s release in the United States have any meaning for you?

It’s very important for us, the screening in the U.S., because in Guatemala, a lot of people didn’t go to see the film initially. We were in theaters for eight weeks the first time. Six months later, we were back in theaters again for seven weeks. But now, since the U.S. press has started publishing things, people in Guatemala have asked to have the film in theaters again! So we’re releasing it again here in September.

Actually, people here are obsessed with American blockbusters. We compare ourselves to the U.S., we want to be like the U.S. People often aren’t interested in Latin American cinema, they say they want “cine gringo.” It ends up being a very big problem in Guatemala because we don’t create our own models.

Something like 9 percent of the population has access to a movie theater in Guatemala. There just aren’t many theaters in the country. And at these theaters, 99 percent ― no, 100 percent of the titles are U.S. blockbusters. There are so few places to see independent films. Actually, we are creating one now, we are working to have a space to show independent films in Guatemala.

But in the end, we are a bit like a U.S. colony. All of the TV is American, all of the fashion is American, the cities are constructed like in the U.S. People think that Miami is the capital of our country!


For people who see this film and find the scenery beautiful and want to visit Guatemala, where would you tell them to go?

(Laughs) It’s so funny because in Guatemala, people are complaining, telling me, “You’ve made a film talking bad about our country. Nobody wants to come to Guatemala now!”

I think it’s clear that the film shows how beautiful a country it is. It’s a very small place. Really, in 10 days or a week you can see most of the principal spots. And it’s very interesting because in the north of the country, you have all these forests with these ancient Mayan cities, and then in the highlands you can see the Mayans as they are now, still living there today. You’re able to see the evolution of the culture.

I think the most beautiful spot is Atitlán Lake because I grew up there. (Laughs) It’s very impressive, honestly. It’s a beautiful volcanic lake, surrounded by three volcanoes.

A view of Lake Atitlán at sunrise.
A view of Lake Atitlán at sunrise.
Tom Pfeiffer / VolcanoDiscovery via Getty Images

The film depicts several typical Mayan spiritual rituals. Am I right that you and the crew adopted some of them while you were shooting the film?

Yes, the Mayan rituals from the film are all elements that are still being practiced today. And they’re really very simple in the end. So, before shooting at the volcano, we would light a sacred fire. You have to be in a group around the fire, and you explain what you’re doing and ask for permission, for protection. You talk with the fire. It’s like a door to talk with the spirit of the mountain, with the earth.

We started doing it to have the cast happy. It’s the fire that tells you when the ceremony is over, it goes on until the fire extinguishes itself. Meanwhile, you are sharing energy with the people around you. When we first starting rehearsing, we were doing yoga together. Eventually, we switched to these fires because it was more relaxing. It’s just a kind of a moment when you can focus.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that “Ixcanul” was Guatemala’s first official entry to the Oscars. It is actually the country’s second entry; the first was 1994’s “El Silencio de Neto.” Language has also been amended to refer to Kaqchikel as a language, not a dialect.

This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

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