How Guatemalan Horror Film ‘La Llorona’ Used Genre to Examine Genocide

TheWrap magazine: Director Jayro Bustamante says his Oscar entry was a way to use horror elements to examine issues that viewers don’t want to talk about

A version of this story about “La Llorona” first appeared in the International Film Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Director Jayro Bustamante’s dark drama “La Llorona,” the Guatemalan entry in this year’s Oscar race, tells the story of a Guatemalan dictator who helped engineer a genocide of native Mayans but returns home after his sentence is overturned on a technicality. Bustamante addresses the political story by using horror elements and using the character of La Llorona, a weeping woman popular in Latin American folklore.

Bustamante spoke to TheWrap about his unsettling, slow-burn piece of creepy social commentary, which is available on the streaming service Shudder.

Why did you want to make this film and tell it in this way?
It was part of a triptych that I’ve been preparing since 2015. I wanted to talk about the big problem of discrimination in my society, but I didn’t know in what way we wanted to approach that topic because people in Guatemala don’t want to talk about genocide. At the same time, I was doing research about what kind of films people are watching, and they are watching for the most part horror films and superhero films. And La Llorona, for us, is a kind of heroine and at the same time she’s coming from the horror elements.

And I wanted to be in the house of evil. Normally, all the dictators in Latin America continue saying that they are heroes and that they are not feeling any guilt because they saved us from communism. But I don’t believe that. I really believe that in the night, they feel guilt. So I wanted to be there with my camera when that darkness came for them.

What was the importance of the La Llorona character, a significant figure in Latin American folklore?
To me, it was simple and useful – not only to tell the story, but also to transform the character. The original character is from a very misogynistic story. She’s all the time crying, and she even kills her kids. She’s presented as a monster. But I wanted to give her an elegance, and use that elegance to make fear. I wanted to change the legend.

Had you had ambitions to make horror movies before this?
No. I consider myself a storyteller, and I want to use the different languages of movies and the different genres too. I want to make a comedy, I want to make a love story – I’m really curious about all of those.

The film uses horror elements, but it’s also quiet and contemplative.
When I started working with horror elements, the most important and the thing that scared me was the fact that there is a lot of pleasure to make a horror movie, because it’s very effective. We were playing with that and we had to be careful because the horror element can’t be more important than the horror coming from the reality. So we built a balance with three baskets. We were putting in horror elements, horror coming from real stories and horror coming from magical realism.

Was it important to subvert the horror genre in a certain way?
I didn’t want it to make a traditional horror film because it’s a mix – I wanted a little bit of the Mayan culture in the film, and Mayan culture has another rhythm. I’m bringing you to another part of the world.

You’re dealing with a very dark moment in history, and one with many, many victims, but you’re doing it through the use of genre. Did you worry about being respectful enough to the victims of the genocide of indigenous people?
Yeah. I asked for advice from a lot of people who work in human rights. And very quickly, people started telling me, “You know what is disrespectful about what happened? When people are silent about the story, or people saying that there is no genocide.” So they pushed me to do it. Also, in the film, many of the extras were part of a group of people who continue to spread the word about the genocide, and continue looking for their disappeared people.

What were the particular challenges of making it?
When we started doing the film, I did an interview talking about it. And after that interview, we started getting some calls. People would hide behind advice, but they would say, “Don’t make that film. Don’t talk about that if you want to continue to have a career.” So we had to run to make the film–other people said, “If you want to make the film, you have to do it very quick.” So in less than three months, we had to find the financing and start making the film. And even then, we were conscious of the danger.

And what has the reaction been now that you’ve finished?
At first, there was a kind of a silence about the film. But when we were chosen to represent Guatemala at the Oscars, things changed, like black and white. Right now people are very proud of us. They are not saying that the film is talking about genocide, but they just want to have an Oscar. It’s very funny. The film is very important for people in Guatemala even if they don’t want to talk about it.

Read more of the International Film Issue here.

OscarWrap international issue 2021