I had the pleasure of speaking with Jayro Bustamante, the Guatemalan director of the incredible film LA LLORONA. He’s a fascinating and multilayered artist with a mystery about him. He’s always wanted to make movies and has let nothing stop him. Be prepared for him to create more marvels for your eyes, mind, and heart to enjoy and become entranced with. His work is based on both realistic social consciousness and magical realism.
As a general disclaimer, there may be the potential of spoilers in this interview. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
With the movies that you’ve made, obviously you’ve used Indigenous actors and you’ve covered Indigenous issues in your films. I was wondering where your interest came from. Are you Indigenous or is it something you become interested in as an artist?
Jayro Bustamante: I am from a mixed background. My father and my mother came from a Spanish family, but we all know that even Spanish families have a mixture of the different cultures and ethnicities.
But the most important thing that led me to want to explore Indigenous issues is my mother’s second marriage. When I was four, my mother married another man and I started living with them and that man is Mayan-Kaqchikel. And so I grew up with this family which was a Kaqchikel family and I have really been adopted by them. I really absorbed all the things that they could teach me. I noticed that they had a lot of problems because they were using up a lot of their energy as a family to hide their origins. This is because Guatemala is a place with a lot of discrimination. I started to understand that my grandmother, for example, the mother of my stepfather, my grandma, who was a wonderful lady, had to hide the fact that she spoke three Maya languages. She was first to have to hide their origins. I think my conscience was born there.
If you had to give an artistic statement about what you mean to do with your work and what you seek to tell the world or to communicate to people through your work, could you give me a picture of what that is?
Jayro Bustamante: To me, it is very important that movies can be more than just entertainment, and movies can help and support causes or social movements. And that’s my editorial line in my company, La Casa de Producción, when I decide to make LA LLORONA, I was talking about the fact that in Guatemala because all of our history, we had a war for almost forty years, People don’t know about that because the state silenced that part of our life. Even with the genocide, people in Guatemala continue trying to silence anyone who talks about it. If we want to advance as a country and if we want to create bridges between the different societies within our own country, we have to talk about that. We have to look for solutions because we cannot just turn our faces away and continue living as if nothing that was wrong happened. That was the first part, we have to talk about that. It is a very important topic. There is a genocide and there are people [who] continue social discrimination. So the problem is: how to do that when your country doesn’t want to talk about it. I decided to costume it and I made a horror film to talk about that and to use one of the most popular and famous legends in the country which is La Llorona.
Did you always want to work in film or were you on a different path of artistry? How did you become a director?
Jayro Bustamante: I wanted to be a director from the very beginning, from when I first have a memory. I grew up in a town without movie theaters. We just had a cafe with a TV and a lot of tourists. We had a VHS player. I came to that place each afternoon to watch films. We had a lot of European tourists, so I watched a lot of European films. In Guatemala, we didn’t have a cinema school when I was young, so I had to work to save money and after that, I moved to France. I studied their style of directing and then continued my studies in Rome. And I wrote a screenplay. I discovered [it] in Rome because French movies were very important for me for my development as a director but, to completely find my way artistically, it took more time. It was when I arrived in Rome that I discovered Italian Neorealism. In that movement, to me, the stories they were telling were very close [to] the Latin American way of life. Because people wanted to change things, people wanted to be better and all of that was part of a film-philosophy that had a structure based in realism and social issues. I was so happy when I discovered Italian Neorealism and I started working in that way from then on.
LA LLORONA has two different sets of lighting. There’s the inside of the house like the scene on the staircase that has a very rich set of visuals, usually where it’s dark, it’s very rich and very cinematically striking. Outside it’s more of a hazy kind of dreamlike backdrop where the protesters are; with the curtains and the white space. It seems like there are two different sets of a cinematic vision that you had for each part of the movie.
Jayro Bustamante: Yeah, in fact, it was three. There was the water world. There’s all this water, coming through the house, all these places with water. The swimming pool and all that is the other side, the other universe. But you are right we wanted to build a reality going into the fantasy but the fantasy going into the reality of the same time. There was even a moment when I was thinking about the possibility that maybe LA LLORONA never came to this house. Maybe the family has just become psychotic and felt so guilty that they are creating that in their minds.
Like they scared themselves.
Jayro Bustamante: Exactly. So when you are feeling guilty and you scare yourself, you change your point of view about the exterior world so that’s where the interest to make these different universes.
Like the outside is more real and the inside and the water is more of a fantasy for the family.
Jayro Bustamante: Exactly.
Can I ask, obviously I have an idea, but what was the significance of LA LLORONA teaching the younger daughter to hold her breath?
Jayro Bustamante: There are a lot of meanings behind this character (La Llorona). In a way, we wanted to change this character because normally in the traditional mythology she kills her kids because she was left behind by a man and then she cries. We wanted to change that and make a more interesting character and a more protective character too. You’ve seen those elements from the original legend. In one way it was the fact that we wanted to imply that she might kill the girl but in the end, it turns out that she is really protecting her. Because she lived that kind of nightmare. And in another way water is, for Maya people, way to purify themselves and to protect themselves. In a way, putting the girl in the water was protecting the girl.
And also purifying her and getting her away from the sickness of her grandfather, grandmother, and the family.
Cut her away from that heritage.
Obviously, to American audiences, that’s really scary. They will interpret it a certain way, but I was thinking about it, and to me, it didn’t seem like she was trying to hurt her. But American audiences would be disturbed by it so it works either way. You mentioned the Neorealist movement was very important to you. I was wondering if you had any favorite directors from the movement.
Jayro Bustamante: I really like a lot of directors from that period, I think that the most important thing that happened at that time when I decided to combine the Neorealist with the Magical Realism of Latin America. For Latin Americans, Magical Realism is not just literature or a movement, it means that we live like that. It is the style of their lives. And normally because we live in these countries where the state is not very strong, the state is not protecting us, the state is not giving us the things that are necessary to live, so we need this other kind of divinities to come and help us.
Psychomagic and Magical Realism are very important to help us to continue. So in a way, for this film, the more important directors’ references were the cultural references.
Do you have some future projects that you can talk about? New movies in mind?
Jayro Bustamante: I have a lot. [laughs] We are working on that. I am looking to make another film in Spanish and I want to make a film in English and make a film in French, because I lived for half my life in France. I am trying to work these three projects, but I don’t really have any particular one ready to go out. Until now. Maybe tomorrow, I will say which one.