It's not easy to get girls in Guatemala to talk about sex and reproductive rights. For many, sexual education is nonexistent — a taboo subject in a socially conservative country. Many churches forbid it, and society views the subject as promoting promiscuity among teenage girls.
But a new locally produced film is starting to challenge the silence on sex.
Ixcanul, a Guatemala-France co-production and first feature film by Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante, is holding up a mirror to Guatemalan society and exposing the myriad problems related to immigration, sexuality, teenage pregnancy and teen marriage in indigenous communities.
Based on a real story, Ixcanul, which means volcano in the indigenous Kaqchikel language, tells the story of María (María Mercedes Coroy), a 17-year-old teenager who lives with her parents and is forced to marry an older man after losing her baby in an unwanted pregnancy by her friend, Pepe (Marvin Coroy), who emigrates to the United States.
The movie, which has already won several international awards, was beautifully shot along the smoke of indigenous ceremonies and the ashes of Pacaya Volcano. The story takes the viewer into the coffee-growing highlands of Guatemala where María, dressed in her colorful Maya traje, explores her sexuality with Pepe, then becomes the child bride of an older man, gets pregnant and loses her child.
Maria's character is inspired on the life of a young Kaqchikel woman, who 20 years was impregnated as a teenager and lost her baby to a human-trafficking network in the Guatemalan highlands. The woman told her story to Bustamante’s mother, a medical worker who lived in the area at the time.
The director himself spent 14 years in the same region when he was young. He originally wrote the script in French, then translate it to Spanish and Kaqchikel.
Now the film, which is shot mostly in Kaqchikel, is being used as an educational tool to address issues of sexual reproductive rights among indigenous populations in a country where nearly a quarter of all children are born to teenage moms and child brides, and where only 5% of women consistently use birth control.
“With Ixcanul we are making a big effort to teach young kids, because there is a huge number of girls who are already mothers,” Bustamante told Fusion.
Ixcanul’s production company has partnered with The United Nation Population Fund in Guatemala to hold several screenings in universities, public schools and community centers in the capital and in rural outlying departments.
“The first time that we showed the movie in Guatemala was on the Volcano where we the film was shot, in part to acknowledge and thank the Kaqchikel indigenous community who helped us a lot,” Bustamante said.
“We have been accompanying the film forums, chatting with the teenagers, and talking about key issues such as sexual rights, prevention, racism, discrimination and poverty,” says Sabrina Morales, a communications official at the United Nations Population Fund in Guatemala. "Indigenous girls and teenagers in Guatemala are still vulnerable to different problems like early and forced marriage, but also there is no strategy for integral sexual education in schools.”
Ending child marriage by 2030 is one of the Sustainable Development Goals recently adopted by member states of the United Nations, according to UNICEF. Guatemala has a long way to go.
The first step is just to get people talking. And Bustamante is happy that Ixcanul can play a role in that.
“Talking about sex is something that is not allowed," he said. "The Catholic Church’s Opus Dei’s organization is against talking about sexuality in schools and evangelical churches, which are 43% of the population, are against talking about sexuality in schools as well,” Bustamante says.
Ixcanul, which is mostly shot in the Kaqchikel indigenous language, will premier in New York on August 26. It was a difficult film to make without much of history with cinematography, but it's an important way to show the world the strength and vulnerability of Guatemala's indigenous women, Bustamante says
“Maya women in Guatemala today are like that volcano that rumbles and resounds but hasn’t yet erupted," he said. "Real change will happen when these women erupt and release what they have inside.”
Ana Luisa González writes about Latino arts and culture and also makes documentaries.