Sunday, September 04, 2016


What an absurd little film this is. Just suppose someone had decided to make a movie about a comparatively underdeveloped subculture within north american society,  say a tale of African American life in Louisiana directed by a non African American, which pandered to every available stereotype. It would be booed at every screening rather than held up as a darling of the festival circuit or indeed submitted as Oscar bait. 

On so many levels Ixcanul is a classic example of the Indie film gaze, a jāgerbomb of otherness for a certain type of first world audience. 

This is Guatemala as inframundo. Rampaging poisonous snakes, unadulterated unmodernity, people talking about cars as if they’ve never seen one, no TV, no cellphones, no Internet, no real knowledge of the world outsude this artificially represented bubble. The young men are drunken wasters, the young girls are cójelonas, their elders helpless and ignorant within Ladino society. 

This is no showcase of Mayan culture; it is a snow-globed version of it that sits somewhere between patronising and offensive. I can just imagine the conversation I’d have been forced to have with my mother if she had seen that film or even a trailer. 

And so much of all this is so transparently phoney. 

One can start with the phoney remoteness. How many Cakchiquel speakers living along the Intermericana corridor actually exist like this? Certainly not the two female leads who hail from Santa Maria de Jesús,  and yet have been paraded around European film festivals like exotic specimens in much the same way that returning conquistadors used to parade the indios they'd picked up on the other side of the Atlantic. 

But this is par for the course for serious films about Guatemala. We are back in the world of El Norte, except that 30 years haven't passed and there's no sense of humour on display. 

One can recall that even the blurb for Looking for Palladin (which has sunk without trace) begins ‘in a remote place...’. 

The scenario here might better have been handled as a fly-on-the-wall mocumentary, because creatively little was done to present us with believable fictional characters with a truthful individuality of their own. I wanted to see behind the overblown otherness and the stock situations, but there was never much of an opening. 

Guatemalan cinema will have come of age when it doesn’t feel the need to dress itself up in this sort of outlandish garb to gain international recognition. 

It’s the old McOndo posing as Macondo trope: e.g. López Bruni posing as a Mayan sacerdote whilst performing bizarre pagan rituals for the benefit of Stephen Fry’s camera crew and then taking them out for a night of partying and rock music in Antigua off camera. The latter would have made more entertaining, more truthful television. 


Anonymous said...

I recently watched Ixcanul for the first time, I found it to be a beautifully shot film, but wasn't expecting the story to be as tragic as it turned out.

This may say more about myself than the film, but I assumed the portrayal of the characters we see was perfectly plausible, and that they were in an especially rural area.

It's unfortunate to read that this may not be the case, and that they were excessively stereotypical. I find your criticisms of the film compelling, are there any portrayals of Mayan culture in film that you would recommend?

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