If La Llorona is nominated for International Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, it will be the first entry from Guatemala in the history of the category.
Jayro Bustamante’s film is a unique animal. When you hear the title, you may think of a ghost story or another horror version of the Latin American folk story. Bustamante’s film takes elements of that story and fuses it with the history of the Silent Holocaust, the Guatemalan genocide that slaughtered over thirty thousand Mayan people. By fusing an important historical retelling with elements of horror, La Llorona is an accomplished exercise in grief and mood.
Most of the action of La Llorona takes place in the house of a military general who has been wrongly set free by the court who should have convicted him for his crimes. A large crowd assembles outside his home so he and his family will not forget the souls that he has ignored. Bustamante didn’t want to tell a direct story of this massacre–the people responsible do not deserve that treatment–but he wanted to honor the people who lost loved ones and the ones who are still haunted by what happened.
La Llorona is both heartbreaking and terrifying. Anyone can tell a haunted house story with ghosts that pop out for cheap scares. Bustamante’s film has so much weight and pain that it elevates the genre above your expectations of a story you think you already know.
Awards Daily: How did you know where to push and pull with the historical elements and the legends elements?
Jayro Bustamante: It was our worst fear doing this because, in a way, it’s very easy and you can get a lot of pleasure out of doing a horror film. It’s very effective and you can kill it. You can tell when a scene works. We had that alert saying to be careful of that. We didn’t want to make a horror movie in a traditional sense. We wanted to use some colors of horror and put more magical realism inside. We built a balance with three baskets with political aspects in one, horror elements in another basket, and magical realism in the third. We were putting one element here and one element here and one here to try and keep that balance the whole time.
AD: As an audience member, I feel like mixing those tones really kept me on my toes. Once I got used to one aspect of the film another knocked me over and I’d have to think of the film in a different way.
JB: Thank you.
AD: I really like how present you made the crowd outside. It grows and grows as the film progresses. You could hear them chanting and yelling throughout, and as the family feels more isolated, the more it affects the audience.
JB: I really liked working with sound on this film. You know, we had around 1,500 extras in La Llorona, but I prefer to call them supporting actors in this film because they add so much. They didn’t come to the film because they wanted to be in a movie. These are people who are still looking for justice in Guatemala, and they are part of organizations and they are missing relatives. It was real. In the real story in my country, when the court decided to stop the court of justice and they said it wasn’t a genocide and that you’d have to start all over again…we were thinking that maybe the souls of the victims were there. I asked to the people to play as a victim. They really gave me that. The actors inside the house are reacting to a reality outside.
AD: I would definitely agree that they are supporting actors. As a collective, they were such a force in the the storytelling. In both the writing and directing, what is it like to have such a monster as a central figure?
JB: It was difficult for a lot of reasons. I didn’t want to have a character completely based on the dictator of Guatemala because he doesn’t deserve a film. I wanted to talk about the architecture of dictators because in Latin America they are similar. They have the same components. They say that all the people who were killed deserved to be killed and they say they saved us from communists. I built that character with all the dictators in Latin America, but I was wondering if that kind of caricature is a little bit human. Do they pull off the mask when the night comes? Maybe they feel some guilt during the night or they hear some people or souls haunting them. I think when I give guilt to the character, I am giving him human feeling because if you analyze all the military people in my country, it seems unhuman. It was interesting to me to be in the house of evil. I was interested in what happened there.
AD: Because his family is there, you do look at him through the eyes of the other people in the house. His daughter might not look at him as a monster. She just sees her father. Carmen’s arc is very interesting to me because she starts the film one way–calling the people outside savages–and then she starts to reconsider.
AD: Let’s talk about Carmen’s emotional journey because filming those dream sequences had to be very difficult since you’re basically recreating genocide.
JB: It was really hard. Margarita Kenéfic, who plays Carmen, is not a big theater actress in Guatemala but she is a very good Tai Chi sensei. She has a lot of control in her body. In all the scenes that she is treated with violence, she really made those scenes and it was hard for her. And the kids. In a way, all the family doing that film knew how relevant it would be. We wanted to do that. The most difficult scenes was to shoot was the scene in the court with the woman with the veil.
AD: Oh yeah.
JB: When I gave her the script, she didn’t speak Spanish and the translator asked if she could change some of the lines in the script. When I asked why, she told me because it was so close to her life that if she changed some things, it would be as exactly as she lived. It was so powerful and so sad in the shooting that we never needed to ask for silence doing those scenes. It was silent. We were just there with her.
AD: That was hard to watch, especially with the anticipation of her words. She would speak and then there would be a moment between her speaking and the translator revealing what she said. I wanted to ask to ask about some shots. The opening shot starts on Carmen’s face and then it pulls back, and we see that again in the courtroom. Were you proving how that nothing is as it seems until we see more of the scene?
JB: There is one Llorona in the film which is very clear. All the women in the film are Lloronas. I wanted to give women the space and give them light. If you analyze the real world story, I never found a group of men looking for justice after a war or for missing people. Women are doing that. I wanted to give to them that honor, and, in a way, La Llorona came to the set with each woman in the film. I used women to break a system that is represented by a dictator, but the whole universe of La Llorona that dictator represents a male system and a discriminator. I wanted to give to each one of them a very tight closeup. We have it when La Llorona when she shows up and then with Carmen praying and the woman in the court.
AD: I loved the shot when Enrique sees Alma on the edge of the bathtub writing out her dress. She seems like a vision almost there. It’s very dreamlike.
JB: We wanted to show men hunting a woman. If a woman has power, she can hunt him. We also wanted to play with humor there, because he has an erection in that scene, and that can be a weapon–the shame around that. We expose him with light.
AD: Since the film has such a historical aspect to it, what do you want audiences to take away from La Llorona most? Are you hoping more people learn about the implications of this genocide or maybe explore the power between men and women?
JB: For sure, it is that. If you deny a genocide or the war in Guatemala, you are denying the importance of a people. Youa re denying the suffering of the Mayan people. My country made a lot of effort to put out the word ‘genocide’ even though they don’t have the permission to say that word. The information is everywhere. If we can look a little bit and young people can read more of what happen, we can open spaces to talk about it.