When I was 20 years old, I went on a six week backpacking trip to Peru, Equador and Columbia. My boyfriend at the time and I went to the usual places: the capital city of Lima, where we ate at a Michelin star restaurant and a cevicheria next to the water; the tourist oasis of Huacacina, where we slid down sand dunes; and Cuzco, on our way to Machu Piccu, where we bungee jumped. Eager as I was for an “authentic” experience of South America, I convinced my partner in crime to go further, to “get off the beaten track,” as it were. We got off a public bus in Juliaca and proceeded to find a little bus (or combi) that would take us all the way to the edge of Lake Titicaca, to a little village called Llachon. All I had to steer us was a Lonely Planet guide; when I think about it I feel hopelessly naive.
We walked around town until we found someone who was willing to let us stay with them (sage advice, Lonely Planet). Until this trip, I had never even heard of the Quechua language and our hosts spoke no English; neither of us knew more than a few phrases in Spanish. Not a lot happened the few days we spent there. We both finally succombed to altitude sickness and it was the most we could manage to finish the meals that were prepared for us (they fed us chicken one night and we realized they probably killed it specifically for our benefit) and walk down to put our feet in the freezing cold lake (just to say that we did).
Aside from the one evening we cobbled together a conversation under the stars with one of the men who lived in the compound we were staying at, I can barely say we interacted with the villagers. The cultural gap between us, every word lost in translation, was just too large. It wasn’t until I spied a pamphlet in Spanish on the way out that I realized that this lodge provided the opportunity to participate in the daily activities of the rural residents.
I used to love to tell this story. I was proud that I had experienced a part of Peru most travellers don’t see and met members of an indigenous community I had never even known numbered such a large portion of Peru’s inhabitants (Quechua people make up one-third of Peru’s population). I rarely tell this story anymore because, despite all my effort, I learned nothing.
All of this is to say that, when I found myself watching Ixcanul (last year’s Guatemalan entry for Best Foreign Picture at the Academy Awards) alone at the Garneau last Monday, I knew I was seeing something special. I had finally stumbled into a part of the world people don’t often get to see.
Jayro Bustamante’s first feature length film is set in Guatemala rather than Peru but it focusses on the indigenous Mayans that live in the rural areas of the country. Like in Peru, the indigenous form a massive component of the population (Bustamante claims the statistic is 40% but that this fails to account for those indigenous who hide their heritage to avoid discrimination) but are essentially strangers in their own country, unable to speak the language of power.
Ixcanul gives its audience a rare glimpse of the life of a Mayan community featuring speakers of the Mayan language Kaqchikel (Bustamante recruited his cast from rural villages in Guatemala, where he is also from). The film avoids exoticizing its characters, offering instead an understated window into a world that doesn’t often get exposed to outside eyes.
More than explore the powerlessness that the indigenous communities experience when trying to access basic needs (as we see particularly in the film’s scenes at the hospital), Bustamante beautifully dissects the power dynamics of femininity in a community where men make the decisions and the will of women lies dormant, like the volcano. Ixcanul is an intimate look at what it means to occupy the female body, both the sensuality and the risk.
The film follows Maria (played by first time actress María Mercedes Coroy) as her family arranges her marriage to Ignacio, the man who employs her father and allows them to live on the land. Maria, meanwhile, is trying to negotiate a way to leave for America with a local boy, Pepe. When Maria becomes pregnant and Pepe disappears, Maria’s marriage and her family’s livelihood is jeopardized and her family must find a way to recover from the situation.
Bustamante’s narrative reveals the way in which a woman’s body is vilified for the very things for which it is also celebrated. Hosting a raucous table of the prospective groom’s family members, Maria’s mother Juana (Guatemalan street theatre actress María Telón) negotiates the selling off of Maria in order to ensure their family’s job security. Asked if Maria is fertile, Juana vigorously insists that Maria is not only strong and fertile (she planted their crop of coffee trees, after all) but also that she will take a strong liking to sex once she tries it (Maria, to her credit, does not become bashful, but smiles slyly). Further, Maria herself sees her body as her way to escape her rural home, offering it up to a drunk Pepe one night in hopes that she’s securing her passage to America.
As well as being a cause for celebration, an element to be valued, a woman’s fertility is also a potential for disgrace. The woman bears the burden of consequence on her body. When Maria is discovered to be pregnant–an affirmation of her fertility–she is cast off, no longer valuable for trade by her family. A woman is worshipped only so long as she is an empty vessel to be filled. Sex is repeatedly referred to as taste: Pepe asks Maria to let him taste her and Maria’s mother also uses the word when she’s talking about her daughter’s sexual innocence at the dinner table. Maria is a Guatemalan Eve, punished for “tasting” the fruit she isn’t supposed to pick (all the more apt if we consider her rubbing herself on a tree in the forest for pleasure).
Amid shots of beautiful and alien Guatemalan landscapes, the film’s most striking images are of sensual, intimate moments between mother and daughter as they bathe. Her mother’s matter of fact reaction when she discovers Maria’s predicament suggests a lifetime of making do.The revelation of a private feminine world quietly overtakes the film. All but powerless to change their own circumstances, the women rely on folk remedies and appeals to a higher power to try to maintain control (though to no avail). Juana’s quiet support of her daughter shows the strength of connection that develops from a mutual understanding of the feminine burden. Even so, as Maria jumps from rock to rock, trying to interrupt her pregnancy at her mother’s insistence, the absurdity of the female lot is on show.
The duality of the feminine experience, the body both sacred and profane, is again addressed through the mysticism that Bustamante laces throughout the film. Though Maria’s pregnancy brings shame and potential poverty to her family, her body in bloom might be the only thing that can save them. According to folklore, Juana tells Maria as she washes her skin, a pregnant woman is powerful enough to chase off snakes. As Ignacio’s land is currently infested with snakes, preventing the sowing of a new crop, Maria’s pregnant body could allow them to plant seed and prove their worth.
Recalling again biblical imagery (it is a serpent, a symbol of evil, that tempts Eve to eat the fruit in the garden of Eden), Maria is bitten by a snake when she tries her hand at eradicating the farmland. The idea of original sin is here instead transferred to the guilt and shame that appears to be inherent in the female body.
A duality is at play as well in the face of the lead actress, María Mercedes Coroy, who somehow manages to encompass both the strength of her mother and the vulnerability of the child inside her. Bustamante recruited his cast from small indigenous villages in rural Guatemala. Funnily enough, one of his largest obstacles was finding women that not only wanted to participate in the film, but were allowed to participate by their male family members. After finding the talented María Telón (who plays Juana), Bustamante followed her back to her village, which was unique in its openness to and interest in the arts, and found the rest of his cast there. It is incredible to me that he found an amateur actor with so much range to play Maria. Though Bustamante calls Maria “the perfect victim,” Telón never plays her as though her vulnerability is all there is. She says very little, but in her eyes there is fire.
As we watch Juana quietly prepare Maria’s hair for her wedding, it is hard not to feel resigned. Even so, the displays of strength both women have shown refuse to allow us to view them simply as victims. With Ixcanul, Bustamante elevates the simple daily actions of rural Mayans to a complex portrait of femininity that transcends cultures. This feels like essential viewing.