Belize Film Festival opens strong with 'Ixcanul'

ScreenerBlog

Two days after the election of Donald Trump, I left the country. But before you jump to any conclusions, the trip was already in the works—a first-time excursion to the Belize International Film Festival, now celebrating its 11th edition. Not a bad place to find yourself in mid-November.

The Belize Fest is a small one: 11 narrative features, seven feature-length documentaries, ten narrative shorts, six short docs and, curiously, 19 music-videos (all made in Belize!). There’s a genre movie here and there—an L.A. gangsta tale, a romantic comedy from South Africa, a thriller from Trinidad and Tobago—but what distinguishes the Belize Fest is the preponderance of films about social issues. Festival director Suzette Zayden isn’t seeking after glitz and glam, but movies that have something to say about life in the 21st century. And that’s a refreshing antidote this writer needed after Tuesday’s appalling national tally took the U.S. back to the mid-20th century.

The screenings this year are being held at the historic Bliss Center for the Performing Arts and, frankly, the web-based projection system is far from state-of-the-art.* (Funders from the tech world, how about showing this fest some love?) But that doesn’t obscure the fact that the short and feature that opened the fest were both outstanding.

The nearly hour-long opening ceremony before the films began was a unique and surprising fest experience. The formalities opened with an invocation by a local minister and the audience standing up for Belize’s disarming national anthem, performed by Jenny Lovell backed up by the Garifuna Drummers. (Hey, I want the MP3!) There were also speeches by Deputy Prime Minister Patrick Faber, Film Commissioner Nigel Miguel and “guest speaker” and festival juror Sandro Halphen, a prolific Mexican producer who praised “the freshness, warmth and beauty of this place,” calling it “a treasure in your hands” with great filmmaking potential. And let’s not forget local singing star Jackie Castillo performing “Song of the People.” No, not your everyday fest opener.

Appropriately enough, the opening short, Yochi, is a Belize/USA co-production, shot in Belize by the talented American Ilana Lapid. It tells the story of a mostly mute nine-year-old Mayan boy who lovingly tends to a nest of endangered yellow-headed parrots. Young Yochi adores his older brother, Itza, but his sibling owes some debtors and is plotting to steal and sell the parrots.

In a post-film Q&A, Lapid recounted that she had been invited to Belize to make a documentary feature. But her experience is in narrative shorts, and the image in her mind of a boy protecting parrots became the genesis of the film, which speaks to endangerment issues without being preachy about it. (The end titles lay out the facts about the plight of these adorable parrots.)

In a panel discussion the next day on “The Social Impact of Films,” the engaging director stated that she “wanted to tell a story that would stand on its own,” but also one that would “create a space for dialogue in a way that is non-judgmental.” Indeed, her canniest move was to make the poaching older brother appealing and sympathetic, helped by the lucky last-minute casting of camera-friendly non-pro Evan Martinez. (Martinez was a late arrival for the premiere and hadn’t seen the film yet, and proved to be a very shy presence onstage.)

Casting nonprofessionals was Lapid’s “only choice.” “I’m not Belizean. How do I respect the culture and be honest as a storyteller? They became the storytellers as well.”

At the session, Lapid showed how she raised the $15,000 she needed for post-production on Kickstarter with a well-assembled video. The director now sees the film having a life outside festivals as an educational vehicle with social impact.

The Belize Fest’s opening feature, Ixcanul (Volcano), is a remarkable portrait of a 17-year-old Mayan girl in Guatemala who chafes against the role life has assigned her. Jayro Bustamante’s drama won the Alfred Bauer Award at the Berlin Film Festival and top prizes in Cartagena, Mumbai, Ghent, Guadalajara and the Biarritz Festival of Latin American Cinema. It’s easy to see why. Again working with indigenous nonprofessionals, Bustamante creates a thoroughly persuasive slice of life that also has an edgy frankness about sexual matters. Young Maria (Maria Mercedes Coroy) works with her parents on a coffee plantation near an active volcano and has already been pledged to an arranged marriage. But she desires something more, and is easily seduced by a boy her age who promises that you can’t get pregnant the first time. But Maria does, and her formidable but ritual-bound mother resorts to increasingly extreme measures to solve the crisis.

Bustamante favors long panoramic shots and long takes that sometimes emphasize the forces working against the naïve but questing Maria. And his work with his amateur actors in their real environments is extraordinary. This is his first feature, and a most accomplished one—and a good portent for the days ahead in charmingly laid-back Belize.

*Postscript: Projection on night #2 was much improved.