The film begins with a young woman’s taciturn face: a teenager named María diligently being dressed by her mother for a social obligation she would rather avoid. María’s family, indigenous Mayans who live in Guatemala’s highlands, are attempting to wed her off to a local suitor. María, however, like teenagers everywhere, has her own ideas about who she wants to be with — primarily a young coffee picker named Pepe, who does not have her best interests at heart.
Shot entirely in the indigenous language of Kaqchikel, the movie won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in February, along with best picture awards in festivals in Mexico, Colombia and Belgium. It was nominated for five Fenix Iberoamerican Film Awards (it won for costume design) and was the official Guatemalan submission for the foreign language Oscar (it did not make the short list).
In September, Kino Lorber picked up North American rights to the film; it will release the film in theaters sometime in 2016.
For Bustamante, who spent much of his young life in the Guatemalan highlands with his mother, a medical worker, the film was a way to address a part of society with little social capital: indigenous people and women.
The filmmaker was at the Palm Springs Film Festival, where “Ixcanul” screened on Sunday and Monday. In this lightly edited conversation, he discusses the curious way in which he found his actors and why Kaqchikel is such a rich language for expressing ideas.
Why shoot in Kaqchikel? What is your own experience with the language?
I want to say that it’s respect for my childhood. It’s a language my nanny taught me. I understand it, though I don’t speak it completely. And there is such a lack of respect towards it. The woman who inspired this story — a real woman — she spoke Kaqchikel, or mostly Kaqchikel, so that’s where it came from.
The movie was a very interesting process. I wrote the film in French [in Paris, where I went to film school]. Then I translated it into Spanish. We then went to Guatemala and I translated it into Kaqchikel. Then we worked with each actor to personalize the dialogue. Then once we figured that out, we fixed it. And from there, everyone needed to memorize the script. I had to memorize it. The sound engineer had to memorize it. We didn’t have a continuity person because they left, so everyone had to understand a little bit of the language.
For me it was important to create a setting where the language was just another language, not the [so-called] “language of the Indians," which is an insult there.
What appeals to you about the way Kaqchikel expresses ideas?
Kaqchikel is one of the Mayan languages, which are super visual languages, super conceptual. The subtitles in the movie are more interpretations than direct translations. “Ixcanul,” which means volcano, isn’t just “volcano.” It is: “the internal force of the mountain which boils looking for eruption.” It’s so beautiful.
Unfortunately, many of those languages have lost a richness in vocabulary over the centuries. Manuscripts were burned. Scrolls were destroyed. And Spanish was favored as the language of the elite.
Most of the cast were non-professionals. How did you find a group that not only spoke Kaqchikel, but could hold their own on the screen?
I wanted to cast in the town where I grew up. I grew up in Panajachel, which is next to Lake Atitlán. It’s in the highlands, about two hours from the volcano where we filmed.
I started by doing workshops for women to come and speak about the problems that I touch on in the film. The workshops were very helpful for me since I learned a lot about their lives. But I ran into problems too. I found good people, but the men were often a problem. They wouldn’t let their women go work for three months on a film on a volcano.
I wanted to speak about that problem: In Guatemala, we ignore the strength of women. We throw it away.
Thankfully, I ran into a theater director who had worked with María Telón, who does street theater. (There is a tradition of theater in Guatemala.) She’s a widow, so in a certain way, she is free. She took me to her community, which was closer to the volcano.
We did the casting there — at the market. I put up a sign that said, “Casting,” and no one came. The next day we put a sign that said “Employment Opportunities” and lots of people came. Some left. But some stayed and were very enthusiastic.
And from there we did the casting in a more traditional way. We treated them like actors. Actors are actors. And after we had the actors, we could then get to work with them on a more personalized level.
There are some remarkable performances, particularly María Mercedes Coroy, who plays the teen, and Telón, who stars as her fierce and funny mother. How were you able to elicit those performances? Especially from Coroy, who had never acted before?
With María Telón, at the beginning, we didn’t work so much on the script or her role, but she was kind of testing me to see how I would react to things. We joked a lot. She has a very strong sense of double entendre. And the role of Juana came through that. Her work in theater was much more militant and political, more serious and heavy. So I didn’t think she would bring this lightness to her role, but she did and it was beautiful.
With María Mercedes there was a different type of work. It was much more about her as a woman. She is very dedicated and super intelligent. You didn’t have to repeat anything. But she was still very timid. And she was concerned how she would play a lead against such a strong co-star like María Telón. But we told her that her force is like the force of the volcano. It’s interior. Her character wanted to erupt, but she couldn’t. María Mercedes totally captured that.
In fact, she said such a beautiful thing to me once. She said, “Do you remember when we first started rehearsing? I wouldn’t open my legs 10 centimeters to do yoga. Then the next thing I know I’m naked in front of the entire country!”
She became more self-aware during filming, of the role she was playing. She has become an icon for Maya women and it’s been beautiful to watch.
You are not Mayan, but you are telling a Mayan story. Was there ever suspicion about what you were trying to do?
I don’t think that was a problem. I believe more in similarities than differences. Plus, I wasn’t making an ethnographic film about how different the Maya are. They are the same as us and we are the same as them and I think people knew that. That was the base that we operated from. There was was never a relationship that wasn’t about respect when it came to the actors.
As for other people, I didn’t worry about what they thought. I have read some things in Guatemala about me “using” the Maya, but it doesn’t really affect me. We mestizos often don’t acknowledge our own Maya heritage. Not that I’m claiming to be Maya. I am simply happy to have grown up where I did, with the traditions I did, and to have the relationships that I have.
You also chose to focus on a story that is very much about women and the female experience. What led you to do that?
I imagine my mother is a huge influence. She is a very strong woman. She works with me. When I started my production company, she became my partner because I needed a legal partner. She didn’t leave her career [in medicine], but she works with me. And she was the one who introduced me to the woman María on whom the story is based. I met with her and I met with many other women at the workshops. I wanted to speak about that problem: In Guatemala, we ignore the strength of women. We throw it away.
What will your next project be about? Will it also be focused on Guatemalan society?
As part of the research, I went and became involved in a church. I was part of a group and everything. But then “Ixcanul” came out and I got famous and they said, “You’re here to investigate a film!” And they kicked me out! [Laughs.] Thankfully, at that point, I had everything I needed.
“Ixcanul” will be released theatrically in the U.S. during 2016 by Kino Lorber in 2016. The Palm Springs International Film Festival runs through Sunday in locations around Palm Springs, psfilmfest.org.
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.