SSIFF interview: Jayro Bustamante, Juan Pablo Olyslager, and Alejandra Colom

After winning the Alfred Bauer award in Berlin in 2015 for his first feature Ixcanul, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante is back this year with not one, but two films (Temblores and La Llorona), and he is becoming a thorn in the side of those in Guatemala who oppose progress and change. To talk about his film Temblores, for which you can read our review here, Cédric Succivalli met up with Bustamante, his lead actor Juan Pablo Olyslager, and Alejandra Colom, his producer and the head of the Fundación Ixcanul. An interview that delves deep into the layers of oppression in Guatemalan society and how the director wants to lay that bare and how his fame can force Guatemalans to think about these problems, as well as the process of a lead actor and a director intensively working together to create an organic result.

CS: All your films so far have focused on oppressed groups in Guatemalan society: the indigenous, the LGBTQ community, women. Can you illustrate how strongly patriarchal society is in Guatemala, and if you see a way out?

JB: We are going through an anti-progressive process in Guatemala because we are a very macho society and kind of a new federalist state, so it is a country taking advantage of a very cheap method and very ignorant class in society. In this case these people are not interested in giving our country human rights because it is better if people don’t have rights. And that is a fact I want to investigate, because I can’t understand people ready to renounce their own rights just to make sure other people have no rights.

CS: Pablo’s family is upper middle-class, well-off and educated. One would think they know what’s out there in the world, yet they remain narrowminded. What lies at the heart of that, do you think?

JB: When I started my research on this topic, I spoke to a group of 22 men who had the same background, they all came from very important families and a good position. To me it was very interesting talking about it to them, because it’s not because you are ignorant or don’t have knowledge that you can be in this trap. The trap exists as this country is so very religious, and I didn’t want to say that just poor people are the victims, all of society is a perfect victim. Guatemala is a society in which they don’t want people to ask themselves questions, because it’s viewed as the original sin. So people just follow rules, and by doing that you open the door for all these kind of sects. Even Catholic religion has this department that is more like a sect.

CS: Is this film an attack on the middle class, or could you have situated this story in any layer of Guatemalan society?

JB: I think the story could be situated in any layer of Guatemalan society, but we have to be honest: most people in Guatemala are extremely poor and do not care about these kind of societal problems, because they are too busy with simply surviving.

CS: Money is also closely tied to the church, the film shows. Church leaders are portrayed almost as charlatans. Do you think the church in Guatemala is just another vessel of oppression, and what drives this most: money, religion, or a combination of both?

JB: I think it’s a combination of both. Religion is doing a lot of good things in Guatemala, because we don’t have a state that takes care of the country and its people. So taking responsibility fell on the church, and they are helping a lot. But they are also taking advantage of that.

CS: Can you explain a bit the role of the indigenous women that work in middle-class households as maids, cooks, etcetera, and specifically the relationship they have to the family they work for? In such an oppressive society, these women still have a close and loving, almost protective relationship with especially the women of the families they work for. What is the nature of this almost contradictory position?

JB: This film is about oppression and about people who are oppressed yet also defending their oppressors. There are four layers of class in my film: you have Isa, who is very rich. Then you have Pablo and his family after that, trying to control this situation because they want their access to Isa’s money. One layer below that is Francisco, a character that is more of the people and more real. And then there is Rosa, the nanny. Rosa is one of the most oppressed characters in the film, but she is a loving and caring person, and she defends the oppressors. And I think that is a very interesting situation.

CS: A question about your other film playing here in San Sebastian, La Llorona, a highly political film that is a direct attack on the elite that is at the top of this pyramid of oppression while also showing that even within that elite there is a patriarchal hierarchy. How do you expect such a politically volatile film to be received in Guatemala itself?

JB: My movies are not well recieved in Guatemala. There is a group of ‘deserters’ who love my work, not because it’s my work but because they love this critical voice. Yet there are other people who are afraid and who don’t like my films because they don’t want anything to change. They are fighting change, saying we would become the next Venezuela. In La Llorona there is a lot of talk about communists, not in the traditional political sense but as an insult to people who fight for human rights. I think the film will be taken as an insult in Guatemala.

The other thing is that Guatemala is divided into two political groups, conservatives and guerrilleros. And the film talks about impunity, so if guerrilleros commit crimes, they should pay for them. In the end, La Llorona is very much about justice.

AC: One of the things that is so valuable is that Jayro is such a visible figure in the public eye that people will go see his films just to say they did it. That will expand our audience in a way that no one else can achieve. So we are banking on his fame to have people who would normally not confront these issues at least see the film and have an opinion about it. I have worked on these issues for 20 years, and it hasn’t gotten me an audience as large as just a few minutes of film with Jayro has. So we are using this in a way for people to feel proud about Guatemalan talent out there in the world positively representing our country, but at the same time forcing people to see this movie even if they don’t agree with 99% of its politics. I think doing it in that way is psychologically interesting.

CS: Juan Pablo, could you expand a little on your personal experience working with Jayro on Temblores and how you connected with this difficult, dualistic role?

JPO: I saw Ixcanul in 2016, I guess, and when I saw that I was captivated. I saw it in a theater in  Guatemala, and I thought: I have to work with this guy.

JB:  He paid me a lot. (laughs)

JPO: I sent him a love letter, but he was ignoring me (more laughter). I started working on a theater performance of 12 Angry Men. Jayro was casting for his main role, he went to see the play, and that’s how it started. I went to the casting, and for an actor the casting process is painful. But we started talking, and then I got the role. I read this powerful script and it was very graphic, especially the sex scenes, but I wanted to work with him and I trusted him. When you trust your director, that is really fantastic. I never had any doubt about the graphic scenes. I have a strong relationship with the conservative wing in Guatemala, and also with the liberals. But I never thought about it on this project.

CS: You don’t think it can jeopardize your position in Guatemalan society, playing somebody who becomes gay?

JPO: I don’t think about it, I simply don’t care. I don’t value the opinion of narrowminded people. When I worked with Jayro it was such a powerful experience. We had a rehearsal period of six months.

JB: With some actors we have a year, or a year and a half even.

JPO: Jayro wanted method acting for this movie, and I think it shows. Making this movie was a therapeutic process for me. I really suffered when Pablo (editor: the main character in the film) suffered. Some scenes I cannot even remember doing, which means I gave myself completely to Jayro’s project.

CS: The first cut of the film was this one, or was there a much longer cut?

JB: The first cut was actually two hours and 47 minutes.

CS: Juan Pablo, are you happy then with this version, or are there elements that have been cut you would have loved to have seen, as an actor?

JPO: Overall I am happy, but as professionals we are our own worst critics. So I always think, “I could have done this differently or this choice was not the right one,” but in all I was really happy because I think the film and the performance is really organic.

JB: We put a lot of time in editing the film, eight months. And after that I said, “No, I don’t want to have this kind of story,” and we went back to the script and changed the editor, because the original one had a different project to do. Then in the end I ended up editing the film myself.