6 Guatemalan films that are worth a watch

Jürg Widmer Probst - Guatemalan films

Guatemala’s political and socioeconomic history is closely tied to its movie history. Between 1960 and 1996 the Guatemalan Civil War put paid to its artistic sector and few films were made.

But with peace in the mid to late 90s came a recovery for the Guatemalan film industry. Filmmakers and writers have created some of the greatest Guatemalan films since then, featuring the rich heritage of the people and the sheer beauty of the country.

6 must-watch Guatemalan films made since the Civil War

Studying Guatemalan cinema is an ideal way to really get under the skin of this most fascinating of nations. Today’s cinema has become both an art and the key medium through which others can understand Guatemala’s complex identity. If you’re just discovering the riches contained within Guatemalan film, here are some of the finest movies to watch.

  1. The Silence of Neto (El Silencio de Neto) by Luis Argeta, 1994

Guatemalan film director Luis Argeta was best known for TV commercials until he made El Silencio de Neto in the mid-90s. It is such an important movie in Guatemala’s canon that it became the first entry ever put forward for the Best Foreign Language Film category in the 67th Academy Awards.

While it didn’t win a nomination slot, this film has become a seminal classic in Guatemalan filmmaking. The plot centres around the 1954 CIA-backed coup to instal Carlos Castillo Armas as leader. The movie follows a boy called Neto as he goes through this experience.

Filmed and produced entirely in Guatemala, the movie perfectly illustrates the harsh reality of life in the country during turbulent political times. The story contrasts this reality with Neto’s wish for a better future. The coup impacts Neto’s family in different ways and viewers see it all directly through his eyes. Most of the movie was shot in the old colonial capital city of Antigua.

  1. The Opposite House (La Casa de Enfrente) by Casa Comal, 2004

Casa Comal is a group collective led by director Elias Jimenez Trachtenberg, who all produced and created this 2004 Guatemalan film. Primarily a thriller set in Guatemala City, La Casa de Enfrente follows governmental corruption, leading to a denouement that is both action-packed and funny.

One of the most interest aspects of this movie for people not from Guatemala is the insight it gives to the culture and people, all wrapped up in a far-fetched and entertaining plot. Starring Juliet Cruz, Juan Pablo Olyslager and Maurice Echeverria, this film is perhaps less cerebral than the first on our list, but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the darker undertones of corruption and crime in Guatemala.

  1. Where the Roads End (Donde Acaban Los Caminos) by Carlos Garcia Agraz, 2004

Donde Acaban Los Caminos is set during the years of dictatorship in Guatemala. Based on the book of the same name by Guatemalan writer Mario Monteforte Toledo, the movie is co-written by Mario and Reynaldo Leon. Directed by Carlos Garcia Agras, the movie follows the life and love of leading character Doctor Zamora.

The book was written in 1953, following the decade of the 1944 revolution in Guatemala. It tells the author’s own love story in a fictionalised account of a doctor falling in love with a young indigenous woman. Filmed in Antigua, Santiago Atitlan and San Pedro La Laguna, it’s one of the few period movies in Guatemalan film history.

The movie and the book both highlight the complexities of cultural identity and the impact of living under the Guatemalan dictatorship and military rule during the first decades of the 20th century.

  1. What Sebastian Dreamt (Lo que Sono Sebastian) by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, 2004

Directed by Rodrigo Rey Rosa and starring Antoni Gracia, Juliette Deschamps and Juan Carlos Vellido, What Sebastian Dreamt is based on the filmmaker’s own novel. Premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, this movie is part documentary and part narrative based in the endangered Guatemalan rainforests.

Sebastian inherits a tract of rainforest but finds that this inheritance is far from idyllic as it brings various complications to his life. Filmed in the beautiful but ever diminishing jungles of Guatemala, the movie tackles some of the most pressing issues facing the country.

From local politics to environmental threats and how the land is used to the indigenous people who live there, you’ll discover all kinds of things about Guatemala that you didn’t know before. The cast includes many locals, which gives a feeling of authenticity and realism.

  1. Volcano (Ixcanul) by Jayro Bustamente, 2015

Bustamente directed and produced the more recent horror film La Larona in 2019, but before that he made Volcano. Ixcanul is the Kaqchikel word for volcano, and this film beautifully expresses life in the shadow of this towering force of nature.

The plot follows a marriage arranged for 17-year-old Maria by her Kaqchikel parents, all while they live on the slopes of an active volcano in Guatemala. It was selected as the Guatemalan entry for the category of Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards.

Maria and her family grow coffee on the slopes of the volcano and the movie reflects the lives of ordinary Mayan Guatemalans. It won a prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and is the first film ever made in the Kaqchikel language. Additionally, most of the cast aren’t even professional actors, but you won’t notice as you become immersed in this delicate and fascinating film.

  1. Haunted Land (La Palabra Desenterrada) by Mary Ellen Davis, 2002

This documentary is by Canadian Mary Ellen Davis and is a chilling look at the atrocities committed in Guatemala during the Civil War years. Between 1960 and 1996, more than 200,000 Guatemalan people were ‘disappeared’ or killed by the Government in a series of massacres.

The ghosts of these murdered Guatemalans are the subject of this documentary, as Davis looks at the life of Mateo Pablo. A Chuj Mayan Indian, Mateo was 24 years old when his family and most of his village were murdered in 1982 by state troops. He escaped and settled in Montreal. Eighteen years later he returns to Guatemala. His journey is the subject of this hard-hitting and important documentary.

Haunted Land is her third documentary based in Guatemala. It’s not an easy watch but it’s an important film for people to be aware of. Guatemalan people have been through so much and they deserve to have their stories truthfully and unflinchingly told.