Sunday, March 5, 2017

TIFF Final Night Honors Migrants and Mayans

The final evening of the 2017 Toledo International Film Festival concluded with Who is Dayani Cristal? (2013), a documentary drama that puts a human face on our current and distressing immigration policies, and Ixcanul/Volcano (2015), a Mayan-language film that takes us into the indigenous world of the Guatemalan Kaqchitel and their encounter with a cruel modern-day reality.

Who is Dayani Cristal? begins when the dead body of an unidentified young immigrant is found in Arizona's Sonora Desert with the words Dayani and Cristal tattooed across his chest. We learn that this "John Doe" is just one of hundreds of migrants who die every year in this "corridor of death." It's a sad and surprising fact. We follow along as the dedicated coroners and staff of the Pima County Coroner's Office, and employees at various consulates, work like detectives to put together the pieces of the puzzle in order to learn the man's identity. We are glad that, given the grim task, they are earnest and compassionate. The investigation runs parallel to the drama of a family in Honduras anxiously awaiting word about a missing migrant named Yuban, a beloved son, husband, and father of three children. We learn about the migrant's home, the family circumstances, the daily struggle to survive, and the reasons the young man decides to go to America. It's the universal dream of a better life that has pushed and pulled all immigrants throughout the ages.

Another thread in the developing investigation retraces the young man's journey from Honduras through Guatemala and across Mexico to the Arizona border, where he climbs over a high fenced wall onto the arid desert. He is holding "The Migrant's Prayer" for a safe journey, given to him by a priest who provides shelter and comfort along the rail route. The photography, of the landscapes of Central America and the Arizona desert, is stunning, but the journey, mostly atop trains, is treacherous and the outcome heartbreaking.

Marc Silver, the director who embedded himself in the Pima County Coroner's office to document the story, and Gael Garcia Bernal, the actor who plays the young migrant (also a producer), brilliantly develop the three threads of the migrant's story into a seamless and powerful mosaic of the human cost of migration. We can't help but think of how demented, in the face of it, the focus on building a wall. How cruel and insensitive the plans for mass deportations. How galling the attacks on immigrants when America is a nation of immigrants. How heartless the treatment of people who make the journey against the odds, and whose families are now under the gun, being disrupted, tragically so. It makes me weep.

The second film is no less haunting. Ixcanul, meaning volcano or more precisely the spirit of the
volcano in the Maya language, focuses on two strong women, a mother Juana, played by Maria Telon, and her daughter Maria, a shy 17-year old, played by Maria Mercedes Coroy. Director Jayro Bustamante insured the authenticity of the story, as well as its magic realism, by casting Mayans from the local community and training them to act in the film. It's lovely. Bustamante grew up in this part of Guatemala and learned Kaqchikel from his grandmother, though he was warned not to use it in public "for fear of getting bullied." This is how strong the prejudice is against the indigenous people.

Maria lives with her mother and father on a coffee plantation near the foot of the big mountain. They work hard, crushingly so, but they receive little wages in return. In a quiet but moving scene, the father hikes a long distance up the mountain, a huge bag of coffee on his shoulders, to get his money from the plantation overseers, only to be accused of adding water weight to the bag to make it look bigger than it was. He is thus denied the wages he has earned. It's a form of modern-day slavery that makes it impossible to survive. It reminded me of the sharecropping economy endured by former slaves after the American Civil War. The system was so exploitive and demeaning that sharecroppers could barely make a living, barely support families. They viewed sharecropping as another form of slavery, and it was. Out of desperation, farmers and sharecroppers left the South in the "Great Migration" to the North, swelling our cities and changing our culture. The ramifications of this internal migration are still felt today. Yes, we are all migrants and we are all immigrants in this land.

In Ixcanul the ever-present volcano is a silent witness to the struggle for survival."What's behind the mountain?" Maria asks. It's America, the dream of a better life. Pepe, the young suitor Maria is supposed to marry, falls under its spell, follows the dream, leaves Maria behind, and pregnant, and is not heard from again. It's the story of "Who is Dayani Cristal?" .

Another marriage is arranged for Maria, but not before her devastating encounter with the Spanish-speaking Guatemalan doctors and authorities who care for her after she gets a deadly snake bite. She survives, but she is told her baby did not. She is given a paper to sign, which is in Spanish and which she does not understand, and given a sealed coffin to take home for burial. Only when Maria opens the coffin to find it empty are the consequences of her signing a document in the hospital revealed. The language barrier had been used to take advantage of her. A thumb print had taken her baby away. The discovery is shocking and we gasped at the injustice. It was as if the volcano had suddenly erupted and destroyed everything in its path. Through the tragedy, the mother remains as strong as the volcano, and she helps Maria survive. Juana becomes the hero of the story, a determined survivor in the face of adversity, a bulwark of strength in the face of pain and depression, the elegant saving grace of her family.

Once the movie won accolades in America and abroad, it was well received in Guatemala, where filmmaking is new and a film that focuses on the indigenous populations is rare. It put the Guatemalan film industry on the map.

The evening program also featured a film discussion and a special performance by El Corazon de Mexico Ballet Folklorico. Dancers of all ages in wonderful costumes filled the stage of the Ohio Theatre. The beautiful dancing, in different styles, all with gusto, added to the celebration of diversity that makes Toledo's International Film Festival a wonderful asset to our welcoming community.

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