The folklore of La Llorona, or also known as the weeping woman, has been told plenty of times before in movies, yet there hasn’t been one quite like Jayro Bustamante’s third directorial feature. Part horror and part political drama about Guatemalan genocide, the film tells the story of a former Guatemalan dictator Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) — based on Efraín Ríos Montt — who is accused of the genocide of Mayan people. Trapped inside his mansion while a massive protest happens outside, Enrique and his family are forced to reckon with their unforgivable actions and deal with a mysterious supernatural force when a new housekeeper, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), arrives at the house.
The film, which has garnered a lot of awards and nominations from critics groups and big associations, including the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, is now in contention for Best International Feature at this year’s Oscar. We recently had the pleasure to sit down with Bustamante to talk about the movie and its significance to Guatemalan people.
Reyzando Nawara: There’s been a lot of iterations of La Llorona, but your film somehow feels very different and refreshing, as it utilizes the folklore to tell a complex political drama centering on Guatemalan genocide. Why did you decide to use the folklore of La Llorona to deal with this subject?
Jayro Bustamante: I was consciously aware that my local audience didn’t want to really talk about the genocide because the people who have the power in my country spent a lot of energy and money to silence that part of our history. So I decided to tell the story in a way that could be appealing to Guatemalan people, which is through horror. But since there’s a misogynistic aspect to La Llorona in general, that the indigenous woman in the folklore cries because a man left her, I had to give it a little tweak, to give La Llorona a more relevant reason to cry.
I also wanted to come back to the original legend of La Llorona in Mesoamerica, which is about this princess who cries because she has a feeling that a bad thing would happen to her people, and continue to change the image of her as a monster when in reality, she was a princess. I kept wondering why, for example, Dracula is often represented as a very elegant character while a woman character like La Llorona is always represented as a monster. So I wanted to reframe that narrative and portray her as a Mayan princess instead of this horrifying creature.
RN: I notice that in the other iterations, the La Llorona figure mostly ends up just as an icon, as a myth. But in your movie, this weeping woman has real depth and motivations. Can you tell me about the creative process of crafting this character?
JB: We were initially thinking about why in real history, after the war in my country, there are only women looking for justice, looking for their disappeared relatives, but not men. And I was thinking of the fact that there’s maybe some kind of “soul” who possessed all these women to look for that justice. The real objective of La Llorona is also to seek justice for the tragedy that happened to her in the past. But since she was basically a soul, she needs to possess other women so that she can take the step to get what she’s looking for, which is justice. So in a way, that was the center of the idea behind the character.
RN: Aside from the character of La Llorona herself, who is Alma, I found the character of Natalia to be very interesting. She’s, in a way, trapped between wanting to understand and to reckon with her father’s mistake on one hand and not wanting to do anything with it and just being blind about it on another. What’s the significance of her role in the story? What does she really represent?
JB: You know, in my country, this character sparks a lot of controversies, because the real dictator of Guatemala has a daughter and she’s an important political figure who wants to continue her father’s legacy. So people have been telling me “Why are you playing with the image of this lady?” [laughing] But Natalia is actually very different from her. I want her to represent my generation; a generation who was born during the war and grew up with the genocide. My generation wants to have responses about the truth but we are also scared about it at the same time. So we’re basically trapped in the middle. We want to open the door we also don’t want to do that because we are scared. Natalia represents that push-and-pull, while her daughter, Sarah, represents the new generation who wants to open the door and be more empathetic and not perpetuating this discrimination created by the older generations and instead embracing the diversity of the country.
RN: Speaking of Sarah, there was a scene where Alma taught her how to breathe underwater. And my initial thought was that she’s gonna hurt the kid, but then she didn’t. What does the scene symbolize?
JB: To me, Alma is this mother who wants to protect. She is a woman who wants to protect all the women inside the house. Her goal is only to “destroy” Enrique, but it’s not simply because he’s a male. Enrique represents a system, one that silences the history of the Guatemalan genocide, and Alma wants to break that system and gives Sarah, the new generation, the courage to talk about this dark history and the tool to survive.
RN: The movie clearly deals with a sensitive subject, so how did you find a way to be respectful to the people you are representing but also still have the freedom to tell the story that you wanted to tell?
JB: The court scene in the movie is inspired by a real event, and the speech that the indigenous lady gives in the film is a sentiment shared by a lot of indigenous women in my country. I tried my best to give respect and be as sensitive as possible to the people I’m representing by involving them in the filming process in whichever way that may be possible. When we called for extras, we had around 2000 people working with us and all those people are parts of the organization in Guatemala who’s still looking for their disappeared relatives. So in a way, I didn’t build the scene that involves the extras, it’s them who give me the scene. And they also offered me and trusted me with the names of their missing relatives.
We even had a Mayan ceremony to ask for permission to use those names and to invite their souls to be a part of the film. I know that that was magical realism, but we did believe in that because we really felt them with us when we were filming. It was so nice to be able to work with them and to tell their stories.
RN: Your two previous films are realist drama, so was there any challenge or difficulties in telling this story using the language of horror?
JB: To be honest, I’ve always wanted to play with different genres. Horror is very effective to tell stories like the one I’m telling in this film, but it’s also difficult to pull through because there are big pressures in getting it right. In the writing and the filming process, when we had the impression that we were using too much horror, we tried to put a brake on it. We didn’t want it to overwhelm the other parts, which are the political aspect of the story and the magical realism. But the experience has been fun and rewarding even though the topic and the way we told it was very difficult.
RN: I read somewhere that you had to work with a low-budget when making the film, yet somehow, you managed to build this world that not only feels dark but also has a sense of elegance to it. And a lot of it came from the way you created a sound design that was so immersive. How did you accomplish that?
JB: It was a complicated process because as you said, we didn’t have a lot of money. But thankfully, the collaboration I had with my sound designer, Eduardo Cáceres Staackmann, had always been great from the start, which I think is the main reason why the movie has an immersive sound design. He was deeply involved in the writing process cause we wanted to treat the sound as a character. And since we couldn’t do a lot of shots, due to budget, the sound was the one that had to provide the eeriness that we couldn’t get visually. And I was really happy with the result.
RN: La Llorona marked your second collaboration with María Mercedes Coroy, can you tell me a bit about how much has evolved in terms of your working relationship with her since your first feature?
JB: As a director and actress, sure, La Llorona is my second time working with María. But I actually have been working with her a lot of other times. We’ve been doing workshops together to teach people about how to make movies or to use films as a tool to change society and to create impacts. And my production company actually also represents her. So basically, we’ve been collaborating a lot together. After Ixcanul, María’s made films in Hollywood and Spain, and a series in Mexico, so when she came back to make La Llorona with me, I wasn’t any more feeling that she’s the same teenager I saw in my first feature. She’s grown and she taught me a lot too. I think my working relationship with her is the most powerful experience that I had as a filmmaker.
RN: All three of your films focus on the marginalized community in Guatemala. Is telling this kind of story part of the reason why you wanted to be a filmmaker in the first place?
JB: Yes, that’s a part of it. Trying to fight against discrimination has been one of my top motivations in life. And if I changed my career, I would actually still be doing that — I will not change though, just if [laugh]. When you understand how powerful movies can be and how you can help people with it, why not use it for that reason? Entertainment is important, of course, but I don’t wanna use my movies simply for entertainment when it can be more than that.
RN: Lastly, I wanna know what statement or question that you’re trying to raise with this film?
JB: With our film, we want to create some kind of catharsis and offer a place to look for justice and to have it as a key to open the door to a conversation about this particular part of Guatemalan history. Of course, we can’t solve the problem of genocide or heal the pain that the families of the victim are still feeling even today, but I think with the film, we can learn to stop denying the suffering of others. That was the goal I’m trying to accomplish with La Llorona.
La Llorona is currently available to stream on Shudder.