Berlinale Blog A volcanic debut

“Ixcanul” by Jayro Bustamante
“Ixcanul” by Jayro Bustamante | Photo (detail): © La Casa de Producción

For the first time in the history of the Berlinale, a Guatemalan film is in the running for the Golden Bear. “Ixcanul” is Jayro Bustamante’s impressive directorial debut.

Ixcanul means volcano in Kaqchikel, a Mayan language. The Kaqchikel are an indigenous people who live in the highlands of Guatemala. And this is where Jayro Bustamante’s film Ixcanul is set. It tells the story of Maria, a 17-year-old Kaqchikel girl who lives with her parents in a small house at the foot of the volcano. The family live in poverty: a small farm and their jobs on the coffee plantation are all they have.

A good catch

The girl is in love with Pepe, a boy from the village, whose only thought is of emigrating to the US. Maria wants to go with him, but her family would never allow that. Above all because her mother already has other plans for her: she is to marry Ignacio, the administrator of the coffee plantation. Doubtless a good catch for her family.

But Maria doesn’t want to submit to an arranged marriage and will go to any lengths to leave her oppressive life behind. When she accidentally becomes pregnant, Pepe takes off for the north without her, which makes everything even more complicated. But there’s a surprise twist at the end of the film.

Young Maria is like the seething force inside the volcano that wants out to explore the world. But this yearning for freedom is stifled by the mother. The ongoing confrontation between these two characters makes for a spontaneous and authentic narrative approach, which is reinforced by the very documentary quality of the film. This film can definitely be regarded as a candidate for the Golden Bear.

Double debut

Ixcanul is a double debut. It’s the first time in the festival’s history that a film from Guatemala is screening in the main competition for the Golden Bear, a momentous signal for the aspiring Central American motion picture industry. It’s also the debut of Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante.

And Bustamante has come out with an impressive first feature. Working with an amateur cast, he has succeeded in telling a solid story on a shoestring budget. And their exertions have proved worthwhile. After the screening at the Berlinale, the audience gave the film a long round of applause.