The Ixcanul Syndrome: Between Film and Reality?

by Sandra Xinico Batz

Translation to English by Gabriela Ramírez-Chávez & Víctor Interiano

La series de artículos en español están disponibles aquí: El síndrome de Ixcanul: ¿entre realidad y película? Part I, Parte II, Parte III (Final)

Part I

Art, when not presented neutrally, has the capacity to induce us, to guide us to a predetermined end, and film is an art (the “seventh” art, as they say). It is naive to believe that “good intentions” can move the world and that nothing is predetermined. In a country like Guatemala, to speak, to write, to project, to dramatize, etc., indigenous life (today) has some clear benefits, as long as it is not indigenous peoples themselves with their structural demands (and above else whose voices emerge from poverty, outside of the academic, outside of fame, that is, as nobodies) who raise their voices to be heard. When indigenous peoples speak with their own voices and in their own manner about their own situation, they are severely judged, but when they are spoken of by a non-indigenous voice, the issue is transformed, it is no longer the same (and then we do listen).

We live in a country with a largely indigenous population, whose culture and complexity is reduced simply to “indigeneity,” making unknown (almost completely) their history, their forms of creating, their way of living life. Racism does not allow us to recognize each other as distinct cultures, but instead we disavow the other to feel and make ourselves superior. It is this context of racism that makes Ixcanul such a famous and celebrated film in its own home country (Guatemala) because it apparently portrays a sliver of indigenous life that we are willing to see and “understand” only through a movie screen, simulating what we find there as [representative] of all “indigenous life.” Moreover, we even become indignant over the way “they live” and immediately reaffirm all the stereotypes inherent of indigenous peoples, such as poverty, alcoholism, machismo, monolingualism, among others.

We feel pity for what the screen translates to us as “the condition of the indigenous woman,” reinforcing the notion that only in that country indigenous men are machistas, they consume alcohol, and they are poor. But not other cultures? Well, other cultures are considered “developed,” which fails to recognize all the structural problems that intersect with distinct communities (including ladinos) such as patriarchy, classism, inequality, which are not foreign to Mayan communities. To the contrary, these issues makes [Mayan peoples] culturally complex, not homogenous, but full of contradictions, such as elites among their own social classes.

I have seen Ixcanul outside of theaters, that is, after a trek trying to find it in one of the bigger markets in the city, the same way that we the poor consume the seventh art in this country, where we don’t have enough to eat, much less to go see movies. I have seen the film in my language, in Kaqchikel, something that deeply impacted me given that it’s my birth language, but even so, I did not understand it. The Kaqchikel utilized in the dialogue was incomprehensible to me, something I had to corroborate with other members of the Kaqchikel community who also did not understand it. In that moment, a great doubt emerged within me: given that one of the marketable traits of this film was precisely that it was spoken in Kaqchikel, who was this film really made for?

Part II

Why react this way to the film? Because in the words of the director, Ixcanul is based on the lived reality of a woman he knew. The filmmaker clarifies in various interviews that his film is a story (a particular one) and not ethnographic in nature. Yet, one of its primary successes (perhaps the most important) has been to portray “indigenous life”: practices of a Mayan worldview, their relationship to nature, their work with the land, their clothing and language, and their cultural practices. Would the film have had the same upturn without the indigenous base it utilizes? Of course, to accept that “Mayan culture” was a foundational part of the film would mean it bears a great responsibility in such a racist and unequal country like Guatemala.

In my opinion, this is a contradiction and that is what motivates me to write on the subject, because I consider that speaking lived histories involves a great responsibility that cannot be omitted, because decontextualizing them gives the impression of wanting to profit from the raw reality that torments Mayan communities: the racism, something we don’t identify (or recognize) in the film because apparently it is only an individual history. The film avoids delving deeper into the very scenes it presents: the slave labor in coffee plantations, for instance, or the monolingual hegemonic system (of Spanish) that is imposed on the other 24 cultures that exist in the country.

The “rural” life portrayed in the film is linked to poverty and is not valorized as another way of living or of conceiving life itself. A way of living that is not based on cement or the destruction of the environment, and that thousands of Mayans defend day by day so that it is not destroyed by extractive industries such as mining, monoculture, and hydroelectricity. In our “Chapina”* view, this way of living is considered underdevelopment and justifies the imprisonment and murder of decent Mayan leaders (both men and women) who have defended the territories of rural communities.

Aside from the machismo and the “poverty” that prevail in the “drama,” attention has not been focused on the scenes that I believe could have helped strongly motivate some critical debate. For example,  the scene in which men and women sing in Kaqchikel as they cut coffee on a plantation. This scene made me recall a few films about the African American community in the United States who, being slaves on cotton plantations, sang while they picked cotton and fell dead in the furrows, a form of drowning to death in life that slavery entails.  This should smack us in the face because it is the reality for thousands of Mayan slaves in Guatemala who continue to work in fields of cane and African palms, and whose communities are left enclosed within expanses of crops that appear infinite. During the colonial period, for example, Mayan women were enslaved in cotton farming and spun yarn that they wove and embroidered to satisfy the Spanish demand that ransacked our textiles.

*slang for “Guatemalan”

Part III (final)

Why a syndrome?

One only has to google the word “syndrome” to find a simple and clear definition: “a group of symptoms that concur with one another and characterize a determined condition.” In this case, the convergence of structural problems (which would be the “symptoms”) such as colonialism, ahistoricity, racism, and classism, which transform fiction (this film) into a “reality” perceivable solely on the movie screen and that ends in an hour and forty minutes. After which, in a racist country, the image of the poor and ugly indigenous person returns to its place in our minds, action, and everyday life. From xkanul to ixcanul.

“This is a personal dream, humanitarian and of a nation” stated Jayro Bustamente [director of the film] as he received the Premio Platino (Platinum Prize) “Camilo Vives” in Uruguay during one of many moments of international recognition after demonstrating to the world the existence of Guatemala, a country which is labeled as third world (and treated as such); making [Bustamante] a hero for uncovering the misfortune of indigenous life in contrast with the majesty of the natural landscapes and of an imposing volcano whose translation (of its namesake) in Kaqchikel was written as ixcanul instead of xkanul, resulting from the great ignorance that prevails around Mayan language, its structure and grammar, and which continues to called dialects as a way to strip them of merit and value. How exactly is [this film] humanitarian and of a nation?

Ixcanul appears to move a (Guatemalan) society from a “reality” that is not perceptible in reality. Expressing astonishment over the talent of Mayan actors without a “formalized” acting background denotes a mode of thinking that believes that indigenous peoples are incapable of talent, and continues to deify the non-indigenous person (the good one) who discovers and potentializes that talent, as if they were doing a favor to this country full of indians and backwards people. Do you doubt this? Another of the international prizes that this film received was the Premio Fenix (Phoenix Prize) for “Best Costume Design,” which was attributed to Sofía Lantán. One only has to observe the publicity for the film to notice that the principle “costumes” used in the film is Mayan attire, a strong symbol of identity for indigenous communities and which we have maintained for thousands of years despite attempts at extermination and the inherent subject of discrimination in its use, and whose defense is an ongoing battlefield to recognize our individual and collective rights of ownership. Lantán dedicated her award to all of Guatemala and I cannot help but ask, which one? To that same Guatemala that goes on believing that our attire was imposed on us by the Spanish?

[Ixcanul] is a French-Guatemalan film, and not Guatemalan-French.

I saw the film once again and I noticed (at the beginning) two logos that drew my attention: that of INGUAT (Guatemalan Institute of Tourism) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France, and that explains a few of the things that I see on the screen.

(Do not look for reality in fiction, open your eyes and observe. Our indigenous past is also yours).

About the author

Sandra Xinico Batz

Sandra is Kaqchikel, originally from Patzún, Chimaltenago. She was born on 1 Kab’an 10 Yaxk’in. She is a primary school teacher, anthropologist, and opinion columnist. At the Universidad de San Carlos of Guatemala, she was a student representative and advocate of university reform. In 2014, she received recognition as a proponent for Juventud Nacional (National Youth), awarded the Premio Guisella Paz y Paz y Jorge Rosal, granted by the Red por la Paz y Desarrollo de Guatemala (Network for Peace and Development of Guatemala). She is presently a member of the Red de Educación para el Desarrollo Sostenible RCE-Guatemala (Education Network for Sustainable Development – Guatemala).

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One thought on “The Ixcanul Syndrome: Between Film and Reality?

  1. Excellent article. Caught this film in theaters a few months back. Although it was gorgeous to look at, I did feel a bit tourist when the narrative seemed to favor the personal over the structural. Would love to see a documentary dealing with the realities in Mayan culture of which Sandra writes. Or better yet, filmic stories to come from the voices of Guatemalan people.

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