Berlin Diary: Art from the other America

Posted on February 12, 2015


Two affecting and very “local” films, from Guatemala and Chile.

In an early scene in the Guatemalan feature Ixcanul, directed by first-timer Jayro Bustamante, a peasant family living in an outback is visited by the family of the man who’s to marry their daughter Maria. The groom-to-be, during the lavish feast laid out in his honour, says he’s going to the city. That seems to be the general dream in these parts. This man speaks of going to the city. Another says he’s going to the US. An elder at the table says, “Wherever you go, don’t forget who you are.”

The director seems to have taken these words to heart. Ixcanul may have had its world premiere at one of the most glamorous global stages, but the film’s strength lies in how local it is. This is a story set in a place where the air smells of coffee and volcano. Where there are snakes in the fields. Where men lust for male heirs. And where people, despite evidence of being colonised and Christian-ised, continue to hold on to ancestral beliefs. Maria’s mother, atop the volcano that gives the film its title, makes the sign of the cross and whispers the names of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. The next minute she’s invoking pagan gods to bless Maria with a “good marriage.”

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Ixcanul is proof that you don’t really need a great story in order to make a good film. Sometimes, a great eye is enough. Bustamante trains his gaze on the customs, the colours, and the result is exhilarating, though never “exotic.” The uniqueness of this world leads to some comic moments as well, such as the belief that imbibing rum will make pigs more horny, more likely to mate. But the laughs don’t last long. Soon we get scenes that are the equivalent of fingernails scratching on a blackboard. His duties done, the pig is singled out for slaughter. His neck is slit, amidst horrific squeals. We hear the drip, drip, drip of blood, collecting in a basin below. Then the scrape of a knife against the animal’s skull, shaving off hair. This is the root of the “special pork” that’s been polished off by groom-to-be and his family.

The simple story has to do with sex, with birth, with death – the stuff of life, in short, and the film is anchored by a magnificent performance by Maria Telon, who plays not just Maria’s mother but Mother Earth. Truth be told, this may not even qualify as a performance, which implies something contrived for effect. She just is.

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The English films at the Berlinale come with German subtitles. And the films in other languages – like Ixcanul, or the Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán’s new documentary The Pearl Button – come with two sets of subtitles, in German and English. That’s quite a loss of real estate at the bottom of the screen, and I must admit I find it somewhat distracting. We’ve all got used to films with subtitles, but I guess we tend to read it all, and we’re midway through the second set before realising that that’s German. Maybe I’ll get better at it.

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The Pearl Button is the “story of extermination” of Chile’s indigenous people by colonists – loosely put, it’s sort of a South American Shoah. What Claude Lanzmann did for the victims of the Holocaust, Guzmán does for the inhabitants of the waterways of western Patagonia. The film is, foremost, a preservation of memory, focusing on talking-head narratives from the last few people who still speak these languages. (They have no word for “God.”)

And alongside, the film is an homage to the water that courses through this archipelago. The director tells us that he lived in a house that had a zinc roof. “The raindrops made a sound that reassured and protected me.” He also speaks of the sea that swept his childhood friend away. Water is home. It’s also hell.

Just how much of a hell is gradually revealed when the film shifts to the Pinochet era. The Pearl Button is profoundly moving, and by the time we realise what the title means, we are shattered, as much as we’d be through the dramatic interventions of a fiction film. The only missteps are the attempts at cosmic parallels, and maybe a tad too much lyricism in the narration. A little water-related philosophising goes a long way. “The act of thinking resembles the ocean.” “They say water has a memory. I believe it also has a voice.” When the pictures are so devastating, why do we need these words?

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign