Our most recent screening at Carbon Arc fell on Friday, October 28th. Unofficially kicking off Halloween weekend, it signalled that the time has arrived for parties, candy, and, of course, seemingly inevitable cultural appropriation. Each year, whether purchased from a costume company or made by oneself, a fresh batch of insensitive costumes arrive to caricature, eroticize, and generally exploit and demean oppressed groups, including indigenous peoples. At a time like this, it was refreshing to see Ixcanul, a Guatemalan film starring indigenous Kaqchikel people speaking in their own native language. That being said, full disclosure should be given that this post is being written by a white guy with zero knowledge of the experiences of indigenous Kaqchikel people, so any supposed insight herein contained should be taken with a grain of salt. Writer-director Jayro Bustamante was raised among the Kaqchikel people by his grandmother, only leaving to travel to Europe for a film education, and then returning to tell stories from his home. The film itself has racked up a string of awards since its debut, including the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, an award given to a film that “opens new perspectives on cinematic art.” It certainly has opened new perspectives; it stands as only the second film Guatemala has submitted for the Oscars Foreign Film awards race (after 1994’s little known The Silence of Neto) and one of the few, if not only, films made in the Kaqchikel language.
The film stars first time actress María Mercedes Coroy as a 17-year-old Kaqchikel girl with the same first name. María lives on a farm precariously located on the skirts of an active volcano with her parents, who have arranged her marriage to the farm foreman out of economic benefit. Meanwhile, María has a fling with a boy who works on the farm, planning to run away with him to America. On paper, it sounds like it will either be a fairy tale or a tragic romance, but it turns out a less idyllic narrative was in store. In the early scenes of the film, María helps her mother breed pigs by dragging them together and giving them rum. Soon after comes a graphic slaughter scene. This, forebodingly, is closer to María’s story than any happily ever after. While María herself strives for active agency in shaping her own life, her fierce determination is repeatedly thwarted. She is consistently lied to and manipulated, and valued only for sexual pleasure, economic value, and fertility. While the Kaqchikel word “Ixcanul” literally translates to volcano, Bustamante says it also means "the internal force of the mountain which boils looking for eruption." This is how Coroy plays her role: in introspective and understated fashion, letting the energy of the character boil under the surface, desperately struggling to maintain her humanity while being consistently degraded to the indignity of livestock.
The encounters between the relatively isolated Kaqchikel family and the Spanish inhabitants of the Guatemalan city have a similar emotional disconnect. There is a cold tension between the family and the social worker who meets them — partially due to the linguistic barrier, but a sense of sad condescension is conveyed in each exchange. The indigenous family are portrayed as outsiders within the colonial city, and there is a similarity resonating between the patronizing paternalism they are treated with and that which María receives. The tension between them gradually grows until it reaches a plot point which I will not spoil, but reminded me of Alanis Obomsawin’s recent documentary We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice. This came as a reminder that Guatemala is not alone in its marginalization of indigenous families, but that we can find similar problems at home.
Amidst this largely patriarchal oppression, the only sincere emotional bond María seems to have is with her mother, Juana. The relationship is sometimes tenuous, with Juana often struggling to balance caring for her daughter with ensuring her family’s survival, but she is the only character to ever shows any kind of support for María. Juana is played by María Telón, a local theatre actress who brings a liveliness and authenticity to the role that makes me hope to see her on the screen again. The performance serves as a kind of emotional anchor for the film that ensures that it never becomes too cold. Her character acts in a way that seems opposed yet linked to Coroy’s performance. Coroy never quite displays the same vocal presence in María that Telón does in Juana, but her strength of character and resolve is a matriarchal inheritance.
Two of the main filmmaking influences Bustamante cites are Terrence Malick and Michael Haneke. The poetic beauty of Malick may seem diametrically opposed to Bustamante's clinical austerity, but traces can be found in Ixcanul. On one hand, the cinematography alternates from magnificent landscapes to intimate close-ups with a striking beauty reminiscent of Malick. On the other, the narrative subverts the volcanic eruption of melodrama it seems destined to conclude with; Bustamante instead takes a restrained approach, closer to the bleakness of Haneke. The narrative is often a miserable one, but Bustamante finds the perfect balance between softening its impact with pulled punches and making it unbearable with relentless button pushing. It’s a whopper of a feature debut that raises questions of gendered oppression and indigenous marginalization within the framework of an emotionally compelling narrative.
The film was followed up on a lighter note with a special Halloween screening of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch, a film that similarly deconstructs the devastation of the female experience under patriarchal conditions, albeit in a more playful way, with a feminist interpretation of an erotic fairy tale fantasy film reminiscent of the work of Walerian Borowczyk, Jean Rollin, and Jess Franco.
- Nick Malbeuf
Our 9:15pm screening on Friday night was The Love Witch. Regular attendees at Carbon Arc might have noticed we often save programming that may appeal to an audience up for something other than international films and documentaries for our later timeslots, or the occasional Saturday nights. The Love Witch qualifies. Written and directed by Anna Biller, it's a picture made in the style of the exploitation and sexploitation dramas of the 1960s. If you've ever seen a movie by Russ Meyer, Italian director Antonio Margheriti, or a British Hammer Horror picture, you'll have a sense of what Biller is going for.
Carbon Arc programmer Zack Miller pointed out in his introduction to the film this isn't the first time Biller has directed a feature in this style. Viva, from 2007, was about a California housewife in the early 1970s discovering the wonders of the sexual revolution. It took Biller almost a decade to get the follow-up made, and the range of her work on the film is astonishing: Not only did she write and direct it, she produced it, designed the production, sets, props, created all the period-sensitive wardrobe, and composed the music. I don't know that I've ever heard of a filmmaker taking on so many of the creative duties on their project.
Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is the eponymous witch. She's moving to a small Californian town to get away from (some aspects of) her past, while reconnecting with a coven of old pals. She's deeply narcissistic, measuring her own happiness through the seduction of men. She triggers their adoration through love potions, but her conquests have no lasting power, leading instead to frustration and even death. It's a wonderfully retro vision—even including a none-more-cheesy renaissance fair sequence—with pointed feminist touches. It's also a little lethargic getting where it's going, but was still very much worth the trip.
One of the other interesting things about The Love Witch is it isn't actually a period film. The cast wears their hair and wardrobe as it it were 1966, and drive late '60s-era automobiles, but we also get 21st Century cars and cell phones. This dissonance adds a weird little joy to the film: We're in uncharted territory here, folks.
- Carsten Knox
This weekend we have two more exciting features, both presented as community partnerships. At 7pm on Friday, November 4th, we are teaming up with CineIran to screen an Iranian crime drama called Me. Advance tickets sold quickly for Me but, as always, we've reserved a block of tickets for sale starting at 6:30pm at our venue. On Saturday, November 5th, we're taking part in the Dalhousie University masterclass about documentary filmmaking with a screening of Further Beyond. Christine Molloy, one of the directors of the film, will be in attendance and a Q&A session will follow the screening.