SSIFF interview: Margarita Kenéfic, Sabrina de la Hoz, María Mercedes Coroy (La Llorona)

Jayro Bustamante’s politically charged La Llorona bewitched audiences and jury alike in Venice, where it won the big prize of the Giornate degli Autori, and from there it is working the festival circuit. At the heart of this story of oppression are women, with their patriarchal nemeses on the periphery. In San Sebastian Cédric Succivalli spoke to the three actresses that are the center of this powerful film: Margarita Kenéfic, who plays a family matriarch in denial; Sabrina de la Hoz, her daughter who is starting to fall out of line; and María Mercedes Coroy, who plays the mysterious new maid. A conversation about the importance of the film, how the family bond in the film is reflected behind the camera, and about what to do when you get an embassy to yourself.

CS: First of all congratulations to the three of you, because I think La Llorona is an extremely important film not just in the history of Guatemala but cinema in general. It tackles a very timely topic, namely how women can change the world, literally speaking. And the three of you with your different narratives somehow managed to put an end to oppression and to an ongoing systemic genocidal society even if it is fiction, albeit a highly documented one.

MMC: Thank you! It was very important for me to be a part of this project. We were involved from the beginning with Jayro because we worked together on Ixcanul. It was important for me to represent a Maya woman because it was very marked in Guatemala that Mayans couldn’t do things, and now as represented in the film we are demonstrating that they can do different things. For some part it was not only the Mestizo community but also the Mayan community that didn’t get the opportunity to show that they could manage to do different things. No more discrimination. It was important for me because in this chauvinistic society people believe that a woman cannot do anything but being a mother and taking care of children. Working in the movie meant effecting a change in Guatemala, because we are showing that women can also be represented in narratives.

CS: One of the things that impressed me the most in the film is your relationship within the family, there was an almost Bergman-like element in the way the family is being depicted, like a subdued tragedy. I would like to know how you worked together in this very tormented and complicated mother/daughter relationship. Did you do a lot of rehearsals and preparations?

MK: We did have a two-month preparation and there was a conscious effort to create a group feeling among the whole cast, to get the same energy flowing among all of us. I think that Sabrina and I consciously tried to… well, we have good chemistry anyway… I really admired her work in Temblores, I was very impressed. We just worked on developing this rapport, and by the time we actually got around to shooting we were just having a lot of fun together. I think we have certain elements in our cultural background that we can both use consciously, and of course Jayro with his master’s touch in everything he does (all nodding and laughing) was very careful with us and very precise…

SDLH: I think we had a lot of physical preparation besides all the usual rehearsals. We did a lot of physical rehearsal, you know, and we had a lot of really deep conversations about our personal lives, so I think that made us bond even more. Like she says, by the time we got into the filming it was just very natural.

CS: I would say that 95 percent of the film, save for the scenes in Court at the trial of the genocidal General/father, are as we say in French a huis-clos, completely secluded and almost suffocating, and you’re all in a sort of gilded cage in this house. Did the shooting take place entirely in the same location, in that same house?

SDLH: Yes, in the same house.

MK: It’s the French Embassy’s residence. They were really wonderful patrons for the film and in general for Jayro’s work, and the Ambassador was on vacation (they all laugh), so we took over his house. We moved in and they let us do what we had to do, and we were also very, very, very careful not to break anything (laughs).

CS: And you didn’t, did you?

Laughter from all

Gustavo Matheu (producer): Just one thing, but it’s fixed!

CS: I won’t tell anything to the Ambassador!

More laughter

GM: Oh, he knows it anyway.

SDLH: It was very claustrophobic when we were filming. I remember when we did the relaxing scene with the yoga outside, and it felt so nice to be outside for once.

CS: Once it is released, how do you think a movie like this will be perceived in Guatemala in its current political situation? Do you see any threats, worries, or concerns?

SDLH: We know it’s going to be… It’s going to stir up a bit of trouble. It will for sure. I mean, it hasn’t come out and people are already talking about it, taking sides. But I think that’s the point, to get people talking about it. So no regrets. We’re ready.

CS: Good! And we are ready to support you as well, as critics and journalists, because we really loved the film immensely. I would like to ask every single one of you about your narrative arc as characters in the film, because this is a very complex story that Jayro managed to put on paper, and all your characters change throughout the entire film in ways that are pretty rare. It’s not just a feminist film, even though its focus is on the women save for a small part by Juan Pablo Olyslager (editor: the phenomenal lead of Bustamante’s Temblores), and obviously the General. So how did you come up with such versatile, evolving characters? You’re all very unique.

MK: To begin with, I think my character Carmen… An actor can live ten lives and not come across a role like that. It’s an incredible role, she goes everywhere. And first of all I think it’s very special, the way she goes through these physical changes. She begins very perfect, but inside it’s just… Everything is a cesspool, it’s disgusting. And her conversations with her daughter too, because she keeps saying, “Oh no, everything is fine. It’s these women who come and throw themselves at him” (editor: the General). But then my daughter reminds me that when we would go into the field, I would stay weeping for days, weeping.

CS: Weeping. The Weeping Woman, La Llorona!

MK: Yes, yes! Well… Yes! So all the time she was justifying what was really… She was in great pain, but not just then, she was in great pain for years and years. And once the influence of Alma starts to come to the house…

CS: …and contaminates the whole environment, in a positive way…

MK: Well, yes! First Carmen begins with the conjunctivitis. She starts to fall apart. Even her physique: her hair, and everything really, starts to come further and further down. And then also the interlacing of her subconscious revealed in the dreams. There is a moment, when she pisses herself, where dream world and waking world become one. It’s not that they become one, it’s that they are one. I think what we’re saying here is that genocide isn’t just chopping the heads off a few chickens. It functions not just on the actual physical level of eliminating people. You destroy the psyche, the psyche of generations. Even the people who pretend they don’t know. Because there are a lot of those in Guatemala that go, “Genocide? What genocide? Genocide was the Nazis, this was just civil war, a conflict.” And everything is a lie made up by communists. What Carmen was saying too, “Oh no, how can you believe that, those are lies. Whose side are you on?” Sabrina’s mother loves that line!

SDLH: Indeed she does! She hasn’t seen the movie yet, but she said: I love that line!

MK: When she says, “What side are you on?” and then when her dreams finally take her, bit by bit, to her last dream sequence, she’s not sleeping at that moment. She’s just possessed, and when Alma comes forth as La Llorona in full and everything that happens… simply happens. It’s just a brief scene in the film but the four of us did a lot of work that day (editor: the fourth being María Telón, the housekeeper in the film) and Sara of course. But the four of us, we were just like little ducks all together and so happy, so radiant! (they all nod and laugh). And it’s because we had come full circle.

SDLH: The thing with this part, as opposed to my role in Temblores, is that it was so complicated and hard for me. Because I said to Jayro, “This woman is so lukewarm, you know, it’s like “Yes, but no…“. Like, make up your mind! What do you believe in? What do you think?” And he said, “Exactly, that’s it!” And I thought, how do I make her so lukewarm? Because you want to shake her and say, “Come on, wake up!” But I loved how at first you don’t really know what’s going on in her mind. She’s just very stoic, very much on her mother’s and father’s side. She had to live this life all her life, without questioning it. But then with her daughter she starts to think that it isn’t right, that she can’t do this to her daughter. She doesn’t want her daughter to grow up thinking and believing all these lies. So I like her transformation, even if it is not dramatic but very, very subtle.

CS: Subtle but to the point of catharsis, and then when it explodes we are completely riveted, fascinated by how everything can be turned upside down.

SDLH: Yes, and it’s funny because she believed these lies all her life, but then she’s also always questioning her mother. Like, I remember this and I remember that. So you’d think that she didn’t really believe all those lies. She’s just skeptical about other people’s minds. It was hard, it was complicated, but it was nice getting to know so many layers in this person.

CS: A question to María Mercedes: when we first see you appearing on screen, when you arrive in the midst of that crowd in front of the General’s house, your face beams on screen like an ominous ray of sunshine, but you are going to enter a house that is a house of danger and you are aware of that. How difficult was it for you, representing the indigenous people, to enter the enemy’s world?

MMC: My character always knew since the beginning what she was going for. And that when I get into the house and find these women, I have the ability to see everything they hide. So I take that advantage and I find the weak points of each one of them, so I can show them who the General really is. And I was not scared, as that was my goal.

CS: What was fascinating is that your character also plays several different genres and that there are moments when we are almost verging towards horror or pure menace or threat, because you truly are scary as well! (laughter) And that until a certain point we never know, and this is one of the biggest strengths of the film, if she’s there just to do her work as a maid or if she is there to change the world.

MMC: At first, she’s a bit like an animal that doesn’t know what she really is. But eventually she knows she is there to change the world indeed, and do justice for the desaparecidos (editor: the ‘disappeared ones’).

Margarita Kenéfic, Sabrina de la Hos, María Mercedes Coroy