2017 Film Essays

Coming of Age on a Volcano: The Quiet Feminist Power of Jayro Bustamante’s ‘Ixcanul’

The 2015 Guatemalan film Ixcanul opens and closes with a close-up of a teenage girl. In between these two shots is a coming-of-age story wrapped in a tragedy about a young woman’s relationship to the modern world, her community and her body. As the feature debut of writer/director Jayro Bustamante, Ixcanul, which loosely means “volcano” in the Mayan language of Kaqchikelis the story of María (played by a quietly pensive María Mercedes Coroy) and her parents, who live and work on the slopes of an active volcano. At the start of the film, María’s parents arrange for her to marry Ignacio, a manager on the plantation where they work, while María is determined to escape to the United States with the young Pepe. Believing that sex with Pepe is her passport out, María offers herself to him, which results in pregnancy. Without giving too much away, it’s not a surprise when Pepe embarks for the United States alone, leaving María and her family to deal with the consequences.

Ixcanul is much more than a story of a teenage girl and an unwanted pregnancy. It’s also a commentary on the tensions between Guatemala’s rural indigenous population and the country’s modernized urban areas. It’s also a story about the disconnect between the fantasy and reality of immigrating to the United States, as well as a film about barriers — linguistic, physical and economic. Additionally, it’s a narrative about a strong and compelling mother-daughter relationship, highlighting the complicated beauty of such a bond. Above all, it is a critical examination of a woman’s position within the familial unit and community, and a sobering reminder that women all over the world are often captives in their own lives.

At the start of Ixcanul, Maria is just discovering her body and becoming more aware of her sexuality (and the sexual urges of those around her). In an early scene, after mother and daughter drag a female pig into a boar’s pen to mate, the camera lingers on María as she soberly watches the animals copulate off-screen. Later, María, who shares a bedroom with her parents, listens in the dark as her mother, in a refreshing move, wakes the father up for sex. When María explores her own body by tenderly kissing and then rubbing herself against a tree, the camera captures this moment frankly and without spectacle. Director Bustamante respectfully acknowledges that sex is a part of life and that María’s process of exploration is normal.

While Ixcanul offers a progressive take on female sexuality, it simultaneously highlights the sexism in María’s world. Pepe desires to “taste her,” as if she was something to consume. And when they have sex, he ignores her plea to pull out — “the first time, nothing happens.” At various times, María’s future is discussed without her involvement. When Ignacio’s family visits to arrange the marriage, María, although sitting at the same table, is purposely kept out of the frame for much of the discussion about her “qualifications” (e.g., “Is she a good housewife?”). Her explicit visual and vocal absence would almost be comical were it not for the fact that it speaks directly to her lack of agency over her own life. A union to Ignacio has economic benefits for the family, and María is expected to play her part. This, unsurprisingly, makes her more eager to escape.

María knows little about the world beyond the looming volcano, an impressive visual (and verbal) presence in much of the film, thanks to Luis Armando Arteaga’s widescreen cinematography. From Pepe, she learns that the United States is full of big houses with gardens, electricity and peeled fruit. She doesn’t hear the men in the pub telling him that, as a poor migrant, his future is bleak. While Ixcanul is not overtly focused on immigration, in these various discussions it humanizes the fears, challenges, questions and desires involved. Rather than following Pepe’s difficult journey to America (that would be a different film), Bustamante focuses on María, her family and how they imagine his success.

When María ultimately comes face-to-face with the outside world, it’s a space that does not speak her language and brims with bureaucratic obstacles. Following an accident, the family leaves the volcano for the hospital, and Ixcanul then confronts the tension between the rural and urban Guatemalan communities. According to Bustamante, who speaks Kaqchikel and has a Mayan grandmother, the film was made in an effort to highlight Mayan culture and the racism that he sees. While approximately half the Guatemalan population is comprised of indigenous people, a language like Kaqchikel is often viewed as an impediment to progress. At the hospital, when María’s mother pleads with a doctor for an update on her daughter, the doctor responds with “Sorry, I don’t speak your language.” Later, as Ignacio translates another doctor’s Spanish to María’s parents, the medical professional makes a comment about government aid “for poor peasants like you.” For María’s family, the Spanish-speaking world of the hospital is filled with the inability to communicate, confusing forms and policies, and a growing disconnect on both sides. While this, for the film, is an issue facing contemporary Guatemala, it also represents modern communication divides in all shapes and forms.

Throughout the film, María’s relationship with her mother is foregrounded. They work slowly and diligently together, tending to the farm and animals. The mother sometimes nags her, like all mothers do, but she also wants what’s best for her daughter, even as that very thing changes over the course of the film. There are some wonderful moments of shared joy between the two women, such as when María’s mother bathes her pregnant daughter and celebrates the movement inside of her. In one of the more emotional scenes in the film, María’s mother cradles her daughter in the back of a pick-up truck, shifting between tearful apologies and yells of consternation. With Ixcanul, Bustamante presents an honest and complex mother-daughter companionship that is sorely lacking in our current film and television landscape.

Visually, there’s an unhurried pace to the film. Shots are long and steady, allowing one’s eyes to wander around the frame. When the family leaves the volcano, faster cutting and a hand-held camera infuse scenes with more turmoil. While major moments of action tend to happen off-screen or out of the frame, viewers are often given measured glimpses of the rituals and chores of daily life. Ixcanul does not rely on non-diegetic music, instead presenting a textured world made up of natural sounds like the wind, animals, insects and the workers singing. It’s a wonderful and careful portrayal of a community and its customs — with a mostly non-professional cast — that has a confident sense of its own rhythm, tempo and atmosphere.

Ixcanul, the first film to be produced in the Kaqchikel language, won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival and was Guatemala’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016  Academy Awards. Unfortunately, it did not get nominated and seems to have slipped under the radar. While it may be a small and quiet film, its rich narrative has a vast scope. Anchored by the fantastic performances of the female leads, the moving story of two determined indigenous women feels important without being “educational” or “preachy.” María’s journey is compelling, timely and, in its specificity, universal.

Kate Saccone (@ks2956) is based in NYC. She’s the Project Manager of the Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University.