• Golden Globe Awards

La Llorona (Guatemala): In Conversation with Jayro Bustamante

The fable of “La Llorona” – the weeping woman – of a mother who drowns her children after her husband betrays her, has often ignited the imagination of artists, and Jayro Bustamante is no exception. But in the version of this Guatemalan director in his eponymous film, the legend takes on a new dimension. It strips the blame from the mourning mother and instead places it on the character of the ageing general who is responsible, among others, for genocidal practices against the Mayan people of Guatemala in the 1980s. Bustamente’s llorona, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) – a Mayan actress – does not visit the household of General Enrique Monteverde (Juio Diaz) to scare the women and children into submission but to seek justice for the crimes committed against her and her people. We spoke to the director.
Both your films – Ixcanul and La Llorona – bring to light injustices done to the indigenous people of Guatemala. Do you wish to dedicate your work in general to this subject?
To me, the biggest sickness of humanity is discrimination, and my country was built on a foundation of discrimination. I can speak for the whole of South America: Indigenous people are still being treated as inferiors. There is still that belief. Even if the indigenous people told the press that they are suffering genocide, the “white” people of Latin America would continue to say that the (indigenous) are lying. If we feel a little responsible about the progress of humanity, we’ll notice that people are reading less and watching more. So, if we make films, we have to take on the task of giving them more content.
At the same time, your films are not typical dramas. You tell your stories from the point of view of your characters, and you try to expose the dynamics of the relationships. Could you expand?
I think that storytelling is maturing, and the audience is becoming more intelligent. Today, it is very difficult to have Black and White characters. When I was a kid and watched films, it was easy to see that the “bad men” came, killed the kid, shoved the grandmother, and kicked the dog… (laughter), while the good ones were the defenders. That kind of story doesn’t work anymore. Audiences today are more demanding. And to me it is a nice exercise to think of a smart audience, whose attention I must keep. I’m a writer and I’m a filmmaker but before that I am a researcher. I investigate. To me it’s most intriguing to say “I know that this guy is bad… but why? And how does he feel about it?”, and to examine how characters interact with each other. Putting psychology, philosophy and anthropology in a script is interesting, and these three sciences are never black and white.
This is very true about La Llorona, especially concerning the female characters who play important and transformative roles.
I feel very comfortable working with female characters. I consider myself a female defender and a feminist but not because I feel that women are superior to men. What appeals to me about women is the fact that they are oppressed, while they are the majority (in the human population). We come back to the same problem: A group of people having the power to oppress others. I say to myself: If women wake up, the world will change.
The oppressed add to the power of the oppressors. We have to break that. We have to be conscious about the fact that we are accepting oppression. And by accepting it we are increasing it. That would be the first step. If we analyze humanity, we can observe the way women and men solve problems – and I’d much rather have women solve my problems! I find their ways more humane. Not because the DNA of women is any different, but because men learn to be less humane. They learn to be strong, hide their feelings. Women are not ashamed of (their feelings). I want to push that. I really want to live in a more feminine world … A world where feelings are not shameful, where people think of others with empathy. A more feminine world is where women are no longer oppressed. In La LLorona, for example, I don’t want to say that women are not responsible and are just victims. My female characters are part of the problem because they are still keeping the truth secret and closing their eyes to it. So they carry a little of the responsibility but also the chance to change (the situation) – because men are too comfortable in their position (of power).
In both your films you don’t only deal with female characters but also motherhood. I’m assuming that this was also a conscious choice.
When you live in a place in which the state does not take care of its citizens, family becomes very strong. And even if men play the lead role, there’s always a mother behind. If you look at our history, after the war, when people continued to look for their missing relatives, it was always mothers and women doing that kind of work.
You use a lot of mythical elements in your work. How do you work with myth and why is it important to you?
I think it is the same answer here. When you live in a world without a state, you find hope in divinities. Naturally we appeal to magical realism, psycho-magic, superpowers coming from other worlds. People think that in Latin America magic realism is a literary movement, but it is a way of life for us. The first thing I do when I have a problem is to do a little magical ceremony. Then I become a person who thinks … I really love that way of life, it reminds me that I’m just a small piece in this universe, and that there are bigger energies.
There is another element that goes along with myth and rituals and that is nature. I feel that you have a special connection to nature.
I really love the Mayan worldview because, in the end, it’s very simple. You don’t have to believe in any particular myth, but just in the fact that you are not the owner of this planet, you are just part of it, and that you have to reconnect with that (universal) energy. When you understand that, you can also understand how we are destroying our planet.
What kind of world did you want to make with ‘La Llorona’?
We had a lot of film references, other horror films that have characters enclosed in a house, but I wanted to work with another kind of mythology also. For example, Dracula. La Llorona is usually represented in movies like a monster killer. So, I asked myself why Dracula can be an elegant prince but not Llorona. I wanted to transform Llorona and turn her into a kind of Mayan princess. For the mood of the film we worked with dark Spanish painting, like the works of George Latour.
Your Mayan actress María Mercedes has an incredible presence. How did you discover her?
In 2013, when I was casting for Ixcanul, there weren’t many actors around in Guatemala. I was looking for talent more than for actors. I went to the wonderful town Santa Maria de Jesus, and put up a stand in a market amidst the flowers – I love the way they display the flowers… I put up a sign that said “casting” but no one came. So, the next day I changed the sign to “job offer”, and the whole village came to ask what kind of job I was offering. For a country which is so discriminating against the indigenous people, to have María Mercedes in the lead role, it is an important thing.
Why did you choose the horror genre? Did you want to inspire fear in your audience?
I wanted the audience to understand how horrific that period was. I wanted to be free to talk about evil. And I wanted to be in the house of the evil, locked there with my characters, understand how they live in their hell. You know, all the Latin American dictators died or continue to live saying that they are heroes, and they are asking for thanks. But I can’t believe that this is (how they feel). I’m sure that when they are in their house, they feel guilty… because they are human. I wanted to understand that hell. Horror is very easy to use. When you go to see a horror movie, you are open because you want to be touched. So, it lends itself to talking about an issue people want to silence. When we were shooting the film, a female minister of Guatemala wanted to stop us. The French and the Mexican Ambassadors helped us to continue shooting. The people of Guatemala didn’t really want to talk about the film even after we won at Venice. But now with the Oscar and Golden Globe (races), people are proud of the film, it’s a very funny thing (laughter). They are not talking about a political film but about a “horror film”, and that kind of hybrid (genre) serves us nicely.