With any luck, the name Jayro Bustamante will be well-known by cinephiles near and far very soon. At Sundance earlier this year, I said his third feature La Llorona is “an effective slow-burn that uses thriller tropes to explore the lingering scars of the Guatemalan Civil War.” As the film is now available on Shudder, The Film Stage had the opportunity to chat with the filmmaker about the project, how it interweaves the complicated history of his home country, and where he turned for inspiration.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Film Stage: You have mentioned that you wanted to explore a triptych of different issues that were specific to Guatemala in your feature films and that La Llorona would be the third of those. Could you go into the historical origins and the reasoning behind making this picture?
Jayro Bustamante: Yeah, when I decided to make these three films, I was very worried about three insults that we use in Guatemala and how those three insults served for me. They are expressions that continue to create discrimination and reveal discrimination in our country. For example, the first insult (as explored in the Bustamente’s first film Ixcanul) is a slur against indigenous people, and in Guatemala, 75% of the Guatemalan people are indigenous. So, if you can understand that our origins used as an insult, you can understand how broken our people are. The second insult is “hueco,” which means homosexual [in a derogatory way]. (This is explored in Bustamente’s second film Temblores). But it’s used only for homosexual men. So, that insult reflects a macho and misogynistic society. Because in Guatemala, we consider that if a man is homosexual, he’s becoming more feminine. And if you are feminine, you are less than if you are masculine. So it’s a very, very horrible insult in the end, because it’s not just insulting the LGBTQ community, but it’s insulting women.
And the third insult is communist. And communist is not used for talk about people who have a political ideology. It’s used to insult people who are defending human rights or social rights or independent rights. And normally Guatemala it’s living in a very, very conservative way. Here, people love Trump. And it’s very eclectic, eclectic because they are defending this neoliberalism, economic neoliberalism. But when you know that all the riches of the country is in the hands of nine percent of the population, you can understand why they are performing bad and why for them, human rights are the enemy. Because we have every type coming from the U.S.A. and defeating the enemy, which was the communist. Normally we’d still use the “communist” to define the enemy all the time. And in that period [during the Guatemalan Civil War], their enemy was people defending human rights. And it’s normal because if you are a country who don’t like human rights, or you don’t like respecting rights, it’s normal that in these kind of conflicts, genocide can happen. So the people have every right to want to talk about the genocide and war in Guatemala. And I wanted to do that in a good way because I know that in my country people don’t want to talk about that. So I said, “I have to package that message in a film, having a forum that they want to accept.”
So I made a study to understand what kind of film Guatemalan people are consuming. And we are consuming superhero films and horror films. These genres are very representative of the people in Guatemala. So with that idea in mind, I find “La Llorona” (The Weeping Woman), who is a very, very important icon in our culture. And she is not a hero but a very important icon. And at the same time, a horror icon. So I said, “It’s perfect. I will use La Llorona to tell this story and identify that this genocide is a most horrific act in our history.” Using La Llorona for my film I had the opportunity to transform the legend because normally the Legend of La Llorona is a woman who is crying all her life because the men quit her. And I thought maybe La Llorona can cry for a more relevant thing. Maybe she can cry for the victims from war and genocide.
And you’re mentioning using the horror genre to explore these themes. From a technical standpoint, you have such confidence in utilizing your master shots. And holding on frames for a long period of time and allowing your actors to perform during long takes, plus some incredible sound design. For a lot of the film, it is really more of what you hear and less of what you see. I’m wondering, as you’re developing this project, how do you come to make those decisions creatively about utilizing sound and master shots in the way that you did?
Oh, thank you so much. It was very nice work because we did not have a very important budget to make the film. So we had to work a lot in our artistic positions. We never were able to shoot a scene just to say, “Maybe we will use it.” We didn’t have the money to do that. Then we say each shot that we will do will have to be in the film. So when you don’t have money, you have to put more time and you have to put more creativity and you have to put more passion. And I think we can feel it in the film. We can feel not only my decision, but the decision of my team and the actors, because each actor was so involved in the film.
Yeah, it’s amazing how you’re able to stretch the dollar as it were to achieve that effect. It really does work. Were there any genres or films or filmmakers that you used as inspiration, thinking about that using the most of your limited budget? Was there anything you were using kind of as a reference point as you were making the film?
Yeah, in general, I remember when I was a film student and I moved to France to do my studies and I was absorbing the French cinema because you know, French culture is so important [and there are] a lot of good references, but I was looking for more. And after that, I moved to Rome and I discovered Italian neo-realism. And when I discovered that I was sure that was the way that I wanted to follow to make films. Because, I just say the people in those films are like Latin American people. They are incredible. They are smart. They don’t have any tools. They want to make a revolution, but they don’t have good leaders. And when we arrived to La Llorona we became more specific in looking for inspiration. And I love Japanese films too, so there’s a lot of Japanese influence in the film. Not only one, but Japanese films in their totality. And The Shining was very important. Also Dracula, which is white and black. I really was fascinated by Dracula when I was a kid because Dracula has that perfect elegance. Even if he scares me. And I decided to give to La Llorona that elegance too.
Now you have finished your triptych of feature films. So moving forward, obviously this is a strange time but is there any sense of what’s next for you?
For my first three films, I produced them with France and Guatemala and some other countries, and I know very well myself how to do that kind of co-production. I have a company in Guatemala and I produce my films myself. And I have another company in Paris [through which I work]. For my next film, I want to add the American industry. And I had a lot of meetings in the last year and I will make a film with an American producer Jonathan King. And we are working on another film in Guatemala called Rita. It’s a name of a girl and it’s a very, very touching film. It’s a film that will have a lot of real facts but a lot of fantasy at the same time. But based on more surprising things that happened to me when I started talking with Jonathan.
I always had the idea that to make a film with the U.S. industry would be like––this is kind of a cliche––but I really thought that a producer would come and say, “I love your idea, but now you have to transform it and make it in an American film, in a USA film.” And I was surprised because it wasn’t happening to me. And Jonathan told me, “I really like your idea. I want to make that film following your way to work and respecting the casting that you will use, respecting the language in the film that you will choose and respecting the setting that you will use.” In a way it was a little bit too beautiful to be true, but until now I’m believing that it’s true. [Laughs.] So I’m very excited to work with those kinds of people in the American industry.
La Llorona is now on Shudder.