The Star of Guatemalan Hit ‘Ixcanul’ on Being Afraid She’d “Ruin” the Film & Turning Down the Role


Jayro Bustamante’s debut film has been wowing audiences ever since it premiered at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival. In Ixcanul, we see a culture clash of modernity in the land of the Kaqchikel in the Guatemalan highlands. When Maria, a young, shy Mayan girl sees her world closing in — her parents have arranged a marriage to the man overseeing the plantation where they all work — she rebels by jumping into the arms of Pepe, a young coffee farmer who dreams of going to the United States.

Drawn in by Pepe’s dreams she’s all the more devastated when he leaves unexpectedly and she finds out she’s pregnant. Part of what makes Ixcanul so hypnotic is its central performance. María Mercedes Coroy, plucked from a casting call in her hometown by Bustamante himself, anchors the film with a quiet and fearless performance. Even when you’re not following her dialogue via subtitles (much of the film is in Kaqchikel), you can feel the weight of this young girl’s life. It’s a performance all the more revelatory for the way Coroy collaborated with Bustamante to flesh out this real-life-inspired narrative.

Speaking to the country’s entrenched racism and machismo, Ixcanul (“volcano” in Kaqchikel) never loses track that it’s telling this one particular woman’s story in this moment in time. Though, as Coroy points out, there are Marias everywhere. Beautifully showcasing the Guatemalan landscapes around the imposing Pacaya volcano and featuring some of the most breathtaking cinematic shots of the year, it’s no surprise this critically adored film became Guatemala’s first ever submission to the Academy Awards in the Foreign Language film category last year.

Remezcla caught up with the Coroy ahead of the film’s U.S. release to talk about the timely issues explored in the film and why this incredibly local film so resonates with audiences worldwide. Check out some of the highlights from our chat below.

Ixcanul opens in theaters August 19, 2016 in New York followed by other cities in late August.

 On Landing the Lead Role in Ixcanul

Jayro came to do a casting session at Santa María de Jesus where I’m originally from. I had heard of it from a friend who’d encouraged me to go. That’s how I met Jayro. He offered me two roles, actually. A small role as a coffee farmer and then the lead. And in all honesty, I told Jayro that I couldn’t possibly play the lead. I told him that I was afraid of failing him, of ruining this project for him. And he told that he’d talk to his crew and that we’d talk the following morning. Well the next day, he told, Mará Mercedes, you are going to be the lead in this film. We all trust you.

On Working Closely With Bustamante

“In all honesty, I told Jayro that I couldn’t possibly play the lead. I told him that I was afraid of failing him, of ruining this project for him.”

We began working on the film in September and didn’t start shooting until December. So we had three months of rehearsal. Except it was more like getting to know one another, to see what our personalities were like, to build a trust between the two of us. And with that we were able to find the character we both wanted. To see what we wanted from “Maria,” the character. I remember we used to work with Jayro outside, near trees and we’d use the landscape to help carve the character. We spent six weeks shooting and it was a wonderfully joyous experience.

On Creating a Role Model

What I most admire in Maria is that drive to want to leave that place she’s in. Of wanting to be free, even though she isn’t able and is instead bound to that life her parents have laid out before her. That’s what I admire in her because a lot of us women experience that. We’re stuck and we want to be free.

On the Film’s Anti-Machismo and Anti-Racism Message

That was really important to me. I really feel like this is a great time to really take a look at these issues that are so rampant in Guatemala but also in the rest of Latin America. I believe that we shouldn’t be machistas and we shouldn’t be racist: we are only one. The world is one. Latin America is one. The country is one. We shouldn’t have those sorts of divisions within us. At different times I’ve experienced that myself. We should strive to be more community-oriented, encouraging empathy for one another.

‘Ixcanul’ premiere at the Berlin Film Festival
Read more

On Traveling the World With the Film

We really never imagined that this would happen to our film. I’ve gone with Jayro to various festivals and there are a lot of people who love the film and praise us for it. Not just for making the film but for highlighting these issues I was talking about. Many critics have written that these are stories that may be happening around the corner from all of us but not enough of us know about them. In that sense the film is an eye-opener for many. I’ve seen audiences very moved by the film. That was really the motivation to make the film: to make people feel and reflect over these differences that we focus on. The film is a chance to think through the effects of racism and machismo in our culture.

“That would be a dream, to continue doing this kind of work.”

There are a lot of Marias in the world. We just stumbled on one here. But I think the chance to look within at our own cultural problems was something we don’t see much. And with this film we’re able to see what the issues of our times are and more importantly, what it is that we can do to go forward to fix them.

On Her Future

I’m only getting started. Ixcanul was the first, the first of many, I hope. I’d love to be a part of other projects and to move people with them. To open up conversations about pressing issues. That would be a dream, to continue doing this kind of work.

This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by the author.