Guatemalan director César Díaz's first feature film, “Our Mothers” (“Nuestras Madres”), screened Tuesday in the Critic’s Week section of the Cannes Film Festival (May 14-25).
It tells the story of the victims of the country’s brutal 36-year civil war – not just the hundreds of thousands killed, the great majority Mayan, but also the tens of thousands “disappeared,” and their family members who still to this day search for some of them.
It does all this through the eyes of the tale’s protagonist, a young forensic anthropologist whose job requires him to sit through the heart-wrenching testimonies of indigenous women raped by soldiers as they listened to their husbands and children be tortured or shot or both, then thrown into mass graves.
The protagonist believes his own father is still among the disappeared, giving the story a personal thread to follow. His mother has her own harrowing tale to tell.
Watching this tender, horrific, beautifully human film reminded me – again – of why we desperately need people from all corners of the world to tell their stories.
And considering so many people fleeing violence in Central America are trying to find refuge in the United States, a humanitarian crisis made political, it’s even more urgent that we hear stories from this particular corner of the world.
In fact, according to a report in The New York Times, Guatemalans represented the largest share of migrants in families apprehended by US Border Patrol between January and September of 2018, more than 42,000. Earlier this week, a 16-year-old boy who died in Border Patrol custody was the fifth Guatemalan minor to die since December after being apprehended on the US-Mexico border, according to Reuters.
The Wounds of War
Making a movie like this in Guatemala is no easy task. In an interview, Díaz explained to me how he pieced together financing mostly from Europe, kept local authorities in the dark about the project before shooting, and had to hire two circles of armed guards on location to protect the cast and crew from daily violence in Guatemala City once filming began.
Don’t think such security measures are unusual or excessive: Just two weeks ago, a Colombian filmmaker working on a documentary about victims of violence in his country was shot dead in the street.
“Right now, it’s more dangerous to live in Guatemala City than in a country at war,” Díaz said. “It’s not just me saying that – it’s the statistics. In a city of 4 million inhabitants, there are 18 murders a day,” especially of young girls and women.
For Díaz, the continuing violence is a legacy of the country’s still-fresh wounds of war and many of the same social inequalities that contributed to the civil war in the first place.
His film, and other projects he has in the works, including a documentary about the stories behind the bodies at a Guatemala City morgue, are his way of contributing to that self-reflection and healing.
“It’s really hard,” he admitted. “But at the same time, I think it’s important that we question ourselves about what’s happening, about that violence, and I think the only way to question ourselves is to confront it.”
“We haven’t managed to heal our wounds.”
The Power of Cinema
Only a lucky few international movies get the exposure and promotional boost of an A-list festival like Cannes, but we live in an age where streaming services let us travel to these lands from the comfort of our own homes.
In fact, your choice of what to stream this weekend can be a political statement.
As Díaz suggested about getting his film made in Guatemala, where he said many former military leaders still hold a lot of power and some prefer a revisionist version of the country’s recent history, “The powers-that-be are pretty ignorant of the power of the image and cinema. If they had realized what was happening, they wouldn’t have let me film.”
“Cinematographic creation, collective imagination was of no interest to them,” he added. “They do not know what impact a film can have.”
And make no mistake: We need that impact. We need these films. We need them to teach us about each other, to send us to another place in the world, to put us inside someone else’s life and force us to see things through their eyes and experience their worlds.
I’m sometimes overwhelmed by how long that feeling can last after just 90 minutes of film.
“Our Mothers” isn’t yet available to stream in the US, but there are plenty of films from other corners of the globe that are. If you find a good one this weekend, let me know.
Read more of my interview with Díaz in The Hollywood Reporter, including details about his next projects.
A version of this column originally ran in The Daily Record newspaper.
Photo credits: Film still courtesy of Cannes Film Festival; César Díaz photographed by Mel Mencos.