Film

‘Ixcanul’ and a Stellar Doc Find Indigenous Life Pitted Against Modernity

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The most destructive villain in this year’s summer movies isn’t some superpowered fiend. It’s us, the consumers of North America, whose desires have shaped the world in a pair of devastating new films from Guatemala and Peru. The U.S. looms over Jayro Bustamante’s patient, observant, exquisitely painful debut feature, Ixcanul, just as it looms over the Guatemalan coffee plantation in which Bustamante’s humane drama plays out. The film, a work of tender long-take portraiture, centers on María (María Mercedes Coroy), a Mayan teen betrothed to the plantation’s distant overseer — and, more crucially, caught between her parents’ traditional ways of living and a modern world that demands of her people something like indentured servitude.

Despite officially having made a marriage match, María consorts with Pepe (Marvin Coroy), a young field hand who sports a jean jacket that says “Route 66” on the back. Pepe has been to the States, and he plans to come back, even if it means walking day and night to get here. “The electricity works,” he tells María. Also: “They sell fruit peeled.”

Other workers, pissing away their wages at the plantation’s bar, dish more frankly about life up north. “White people will treat you like shit,” one says. Another laughs: “No, they have their Negroes for that.”

María, like Bustamante, has more pressing, practical concerns than what goes on in the U.S. Her groom-to-be isn’t especially interested in her, and he darts off to “the city” as soon as María’s parents have killed him a pig for an engagement feast and paraded virginal María before him in a ceremonial headdress. (Both pig-killing and headdress-donning are presented in painstaking detail.) Meanwhile, she and her parents toil at a plantation at the foot of a volcano in the Guatemalan highlands, their labor and lives unfolding in compositions as static and rich as still lifes. Bustamante worked closely on the film with real Mayan farmers, and he’s so attentive to their techniques and rituals — their everyday being — that Ixcanul lurches a little when it hits its first major plot points, when it wills life to play out a certain way rather than simply observing it.

That scene, though, is a wonder, a complex split-screen seduction that moves, in one shot, from vomity boys’ bar talk to María, in silence, convincing Pepe to relieve her of her virginity. She’s restless, uncertain about the sexual demands of her upcoming wedding night, and there’s only so much she can learn from the tree trunk we’ve seen her straddle and grind against in secret. With no word on the fiancé’s return, and hoping that maybe Pepe will take her along on his next trip to the U.S., María offers herself to the field hand. She seizes her moment, but Pepe, a selfish and mostly powerless man, seizes his, too, refusing — once they’re in the act — her demand that he pull out early.

After that betrayal, Bustamante stages more of the arresting observational tableaux that define the film’s early reels. But they’re now made tense by plot: What viewer doesn’t know that, eventually, Pepe will abscond to the United States without her, or that María’s mother will regard her swelling belly and say something along the lines of, “Why didn’t you count your moons?”

But even as it verges on melodrama, Ixcanul remains fascinated by its people’s practical thinking, by how their contemporary circumstances — and occasionally premodern beliefs — lead to actions both relatable and achingly, disastrously not. First the mother guides María through folk remedies that might spur a miscarriage, the efforts including much hopping in front of the volcano’s majestic black slopes. Later, when María’s stubbornly fertile body has grown big with “the light of life,” her mother insists that the power of motherhood might be just the thing to chase snakes from a field and win back the plantation owners’ favor. In order to protect her family’s miserable place in the global economy, María is marched with exposed feet into the realm of asps. Bustamante says that his scenario comes from actual stories he picked up among Mayan farmers — consider as you down your coffee.

As the title suggests, Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel’s documentary When Two Worlds Collide concerns ways of life tilting into each other. The opening establishes the familiar conflict: Indigenous natives swimming and canoeing through the Peruvian Amazon, with dreamy shots of rainforest tree leaves matched with even dreamier ones of those tree leaves’ reflection shimmering like God’s face on the water. Then, inevitably, the filmmakers cut to dump trucks and blasted earth, the jungle razed for profit, the rawest vision of capitalism run amok.

The clash may suggest the eternal truths packaged for American kids in Avatar and FernGully, but Brandenburg and Orzel’s film is only boilerplate in the kickoff scenes. Otherwise it makes the fight local and personal. The river reveries give way to handheld-camera conflict reportage, as thousands of denizens of the rainforest shut down Peru’s roads and oil pipelines in protest of Law 1090, the 2007 measure that made it legal for Peru’s government to sell to private industry land that had previously been collectively titled to indigenous people. The buyers of those Amazon acres aren’t identified, but the filmmakers drop a can’t-miss hint: Alan García, the then-president of Peru, telling the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that his country is ripe for investment.

The directors shot over the course of years, and they put epochal moments on the screen, including a 2007 battle between protesters and police that left more than ten of each dead. That follows heartening footage of officers and protesters agreeing not to resort to violence — they’re all Peruvians, the cops insist — and dispiriting scenes of parliamentary chicanery. The police attack the day after García’s government, tired of the protests, halts all efforts to repeal 1090; after that, the secretary of the interior says on TV of the protesters, “Frankly, they are savages” and singles out opposition leader Alberto Pizango as “unequivocally responsible” for the deaths of the cops. That kind of talk has only recently become mainstreamed among American politicians, but even our own heartbreaker of an election year has given us no scene as strange as Brandenburg and Orzel’s strangest: Pizango himself, surrounded by supporters, upon discovering that the government has sent troops to arrest him, climbing out through an upper-story window and dashing off across the neighboring roofs.

Ixcanul

Written and directed by Jayro Bustamante

Kino Lorber

Opens August 19, IFC Center

When Two Worlds Collide

Directed by Heidi Brandenburg & Mathew Orzel

First Run Features

Opens August 17, Film Forum

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