Directed by Guatamalan filmmaker César Diaz, Our Mothers premiered at Cannes Critics’ Week section and took home the top prize for a first time filmmaker on the Croisette: the Camera d’Or. Last week at PYIFF, the jury agreed—awarding Diaz another top honor, the Roberto Rossellini Best Director Award. Accolades aside, believe the hype: Our Mothers is among the year’s strongest debuts and the best of the best. You can check out our video interview with Diaz below.
Set in the wake of the Guatemalan Civil War, a coup-d’état backed by the U.S. that led to 35 years of military dictatorship, Our Mothers is an incredibly moving slice of history. The statistics alone are horrifying: 200,000 deaths, 450,000 missing persons, 500,000 people displaced … in a country of 4,000,000 people. The topic is indeed vast, but Diaz wisely chose to focus on “The Silent Holocaust” (1981-1983)—the most violent years of the war, culminating in the genocide of the Mayan people—and its effect on the next generation.
If this sounds heavy, it is—but don’t be scared off by the film’s political weight. Diaz’s masterwork exists beyond statistics, occupying realms both personal and universal. In fact, Our Mothers is incredibly cathartic, even for those who didn’t live through the horror. We meet characters we care about, in a cultural setting that feels at once fresh and familiar. From the film’s opening salvo right through to the end, Diaz makes his own anguish relatable: first, through careful historical research; second, through interviews with both victims and perpetrators; and finally, through the casting of survivors whose memories are painfully real.
Even so, this film is remarkably restrained. Diaz crafts a poetic visual language with sparse cuts and emotionally-driven compositions. Images are precise, painterly and serve greater truths. Among the most memorable are a mother-son conversation on a beach; a hug in a hospital hallway; an overhead shot of a skeleton. As Diaz explains, he wanted to leave room for emotion. “The film is built like a melodrama … [but] I also want the audience to have space to feel, to think and to have a conversation with the film.”
Expect mainstream audiences to weep. Diaz elicits incredibly strong performances from his two leads, Emma Dib and Armando Espitia—and even more impressive are the roles played by his non-actors: a host of Mayan survivors who witnessed the horror first hand. Their stories are the heart of this film. “I wanted these women as the protagonists because … they have to live with their wounds.” Even in utter silence, documentary-style shots of their wrinkled faces speak volumes.
According to Diaz, even after the 1996 peace agreement, nothing has really changed for these people—but they refuse to be broken. His film may begin and end with death, but it also offers a message of resilience: there is no choice but to keep going, to try to heal, to prevail, even if it takes the rest of your life.