This Mayan-Language Film Is The Best Thing In Theaters Right Now

“Ixcanul” is an arresting story about two strong indigenous women. Go see it.

You’ve almost certainly never seen a film made by Guatemalans.  But then, neither have most Guatemalans. Turns out we’re all watching the same stuff.  “People here are obsessed with American blockbusters,” says Jayro Bustamante, writer-director of Guatemala’s most award-winning film.  “All of the TV is American, all of the fashion is American, the cities are constructed like in the U.S.  People think that Miami is the capital of our country!”

Bustamante’s film “Ixcanul” (which translates roughly to “volcano” in the Mayan dialect of Kaqchikel) presents something different.  It is the story of two strong indigenous Mayan women, mother and daughter.  Currently enjoying a 100 percent critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it arrived in U.S. theaters this month.

We spoke with Jayro Bustamante for Sophia, a project to collect life lessons from fascinating people (fyi: no spoilers here).  His film’s depiction of Mayan language and culture is especially rare, he said, even in Guatemala where indigenous people make up roughly half the population.

“The racism in Guatemala is very crude and very strong.”  Bustamante recalled being taught Kaqchikel as a child but told not to speak it in public to avoid bullying; he described theatergoers in Guatemala laughing at the dialect when “Ixcanul” was first released.  “[People] feel the language is part of the past and not part of the progress we have made in the country.”

Why did you decide to shoot this film in the Kaqchikel language?

The real woman who told me the story behind the film, her name is also María, and she speaks Kaqchikel, so there’s a factual basis to it.  But there’s a personal link too.  I grew up in this area until I was 14.  I’m not Mayan, I’m mixed.  But I grew up with my nana, a Mayan Kaqchikel woman, who taught me the language. And I remember, she would tell me not to speak it in public. She wanted to protect me. 

The racism in Guatemala is very crude and very strong.  When “Ixcanul” first came to theaters, people would say, “Why would I see that? I can watch plenty of Indians in the street.”  It’s really crude like that.  People would be laughing at the film in the theater just because they see a Mayan woman on the screen, like “Ahh, there is an Indian!”  Really, like that.  They feel the language is part of the past and not part of the progress we have made in the country.


What helped change the perception was the international press.  At the end, Guatemalans couldn’t attack the film because they said, “If the other countries love it, we have to love it, too.”

So yes, about sixty percent of the population in Guatemala is Mayan.  But the media is not, it’s Spanish-speaking.  So, 60 percent is Mayan, 30 percent is mixed, and 10 is more white.

And there were some Mayan activists who attacked the film, who said you can’t talk about the Mayan people if you are not one. It gets quite complicated.  But it’s understandable too, because we are a country that has just started making films about our own culture.  This is the first time people have a mirror to themselves.  They’re understanding that this is a particular work fiction, that we are not saying, “This is all of Guatemala and this is all Mayan people and this is all women.” So there is some controversy now, but it’s to be expected because it’s the first time.

You talk about Kaqchikel being a very visual language, very symbolic.

Yes, it’s super conceptual. When you say “volcano” ―  “ixcanul” ― it doesn’t just mean “volcano.” It is more something like, “the internal force of the mountain which is boiling and looking for eruption.” It’s very beautiful. The subtitles you see in the U.S. are really more interpretations than direct translations.

Even that word “ixcanul” ― normally, if we use our characters to write it, I think the correct form actually starts with “x,” like a ch-sound. “Xcanul.” But I decided to put the letter “I” before the word because “ix-” is the feminine prefix in the language. So when we say “Ixcanul,” it is a kind of female volcano. I loved this idea because the word “ixcanul” alludes to the strength built up inside the mountain. So at the end it is a volcano, but it’s more conceptual.

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