Our Mothers (Nuestras Madres), the award-winning first feature film by César Díaz, follows Ernesto, a young anthropologist who works for the Forensic Foundation. His job is to identify the remains of those buried in unmarked graves, killed during the Guatemala genocide. While Ernesto works diligently to identify the missing, he searches for clues to the whereabouts of his father, who disappeared during the war.
Mark Gordon: Congratulations on winning the Caméra d’Or at the 2019 Cannes film festival.
César Díaz: It was amazing, completely unexpected because there were so many good movies in the same category. I was really surprised.
Mark Gordon: How would you best describe the film?
César Díaz: I would say a fiction film inspired by my personal journey. Ernesto is very close to me, a young Guatemalan looking for his father, missing during the war. But somehow, I want to have the same strength and the same force [as] the women in the village. But for me, I am very close to Ernesto’s character, and it was a problem during the writing process. When I was writing the script, the other characters grow, and they have their own lives, and they have real obstacles and problems. Ernesto got stuck many times without having a real life. When I started seeing him and treating him like a real fiction character, he started to grow, but it took a little time to get there.
As the film opens, Ernesto gently assembles the bones of a body. The image is graphic, striking, and powerful. César Díaz recalls what it was like when he went to the Forensic Foundation and watched how this process works.
César Díaz: When you go to the real Foundation, and you see how they rebuild the bodies, in the beginning, you see only bones, one after another, but when you see the skull [placed] on the top of it [a] human being [appears]. This feeling was so powerful that I wanted to translate it to the audience, to share this feeling because there’s [a] magical moment when the skull [returns to the body], and I wanted to share it with the audience.
From 1960 to 1996, 200,000 people murdered, and 45,000 disappeared.
César Díaz: I think the worst part of the genocide takes place between 80 and 82. The dictatorship knew that they wouldn’t be able to fight the guerrillas in the jungle because they [would] lose. They (started) killing the indigenous civilian population that supported the guerrillas. That’s the way they won the war. Also, they start doing the same thing in the cities, in the urban areas, which was not really into the war at the time. I think the sad thing is, the main reason that [caused] the war, and it is still here is poverty, racism, and lack of opportunities.
The Guatemalan genocide is also known as the silent Holocaust.
Mark Gordon: There was a lot of silence around this wasn’t there?
César Díaz: Yes, and a lot of shame also. Trying to understand how the dictatorship in Argentina or Chile was so well known all over the world and the Guatemala one, which is, I mean, the numbers [of people killed] are higher, nobody knows about it.
César Díaz tries to understand why one person could do such horrible things to another.
César Díaz: You don’t see the other [person] as a human being. And this is the only explanation I have to understand all the things that the military, the soldiers did to the indigenous civilian population. Because if you imagine that the other one is human, you cannot rape or kill in the ways that they did. You have to see the other one as non-human.
Mark Gordon: The character of Ernesto could represent the thousands of people who search for a missing loved one. Tell me about living in Guatemala and going through that kind of experience.
César Díaz: It’s very painful because we are looking for the missing persons. Until you get a real confirmation or real evidence that that person is dead, you will still [be] looking for him or her. And I think you always have hope that you will find [the person] alive. I think the wonderful job the Foundation, [where] Ernesto works, is doing right now, trying to bring peace to the victims, [using science to identify the bodies so that the people can finally morn their dead]. I think we are going to have this kind of experience for generations until we bring justice to the victims.
Mark Gordon: Was your father disappeared as well?
César Díaz: Yes, he was, but there is a huge difference between Ernesto’s history and my personal history. My father was disappeared, and my mother had to go to Mexico to exile. Years later, I went to Mexico with her and without knowing [anything] about my father.
Mark Gordon: When you asked her, what did she tell you?
César Díaz: That he was a political activist, and he was kidnapped by the police or by the military.
Mark Gordon: What happened when you started to uncover this story?
César Díaz: I discovered the story of the village, doing research for a documentary. It was the last piece for the script because I had this mother-son relationship, obsession, and then I discovered the work of the anthropologist. And then I discovered the history of the women in the village. When you go there and start talking to them, they repeat the story to you because, for them, [it is] important. And for [the women of the village], it exists because they are telling you. This is the only way that they imagine that the story [can continue] through the generations. [When they tell their story] there is almost no emotion there. And I remember telling myself how painful that must be that you have to repeat the story, also, because there are no books. There is no real national recognition of genocide or the victims or films or monuments or national days. All the things that allowed us to believe or allowed us to commemorate this kind of event. I was very connected to and moved by those women, and I decided that I wanted to shoot the film there that they must be a part of the film in some way. This is how I imagined the silent scene in the film.
Mark Gordon: What most impressed you about the women of the village?
César Díaz: The strength. After [all] they have been through, [I would have been exhausted]. I’m not sure that I would never have the strength to keep going.
Mark Gordon: What was your intention in making this film?
César Díaz: Just telling the story, my story, I mean the story of Ernesto’s and then the story of the country. I don’t know why exactly, but I have this need to tell the others, to have this dialogue with the film about identity, about the genocide, about the story, about the forgiveness, about the born, about everything that is going on in Guatemala right now.
Mark Gordon: When you were making the film and also going back when you finally screened it, did it bring up any issues for you?
César Díaz: I was relieved. Because when you are carrying this story for a very long time and after you [finished], you feel lighter, and that also allowed me to imagine other kinds of stories. Even if I am working around the same subject, I think that I feel more peaceful and more light right now after this movie.
Mark Gordon: What were some of the challenges you faced making Nuestras Madres?
César Díaz: The first one was financing it because, in Guatemala, there’s no film fund or film law that allowed you to do it, and then convincing the film commission in Belgium that this is a Belgium movie. That was the first challenge. And then shooting the film was another challenge, not only because of the industry, most of the equipment coming from France and Belgium was held by the customs until the very last days of shooting. And as an author, I was confronting myself about every scene, every word, every image. It was a very powerful way to go to introspection. That was a challenge. And for the last one, just when you have forty people asking you every morning what are you going to do and sometimes you don’t have this answer, this is also a challenge.
Mark Gordon: How do you deliver a truthful story that represents what the people experienced?
César Díaz: It’s a mixed feeling because you, at the same time you want to respect their pain, and you want to respect their story but at the same time, you know the needs of a movie, the needs of the image, the needs of the narration to tell the story. It’s a very complex feeling. And confronting yourself, it’s also the fact that trying not to be so effectually sentimental, trying to see the audience as smart and intelligent and to allow them to feel and to allow them to think and allow them to have this dialogue with the movie. This confrontation with myself was also about having this place for the audience to share because of the unknown story. I think we do films to be watched. We do films also for the audience to share it with someone else. If you were doing the films only for you, that makes no sense to me.
Mark Gordon: You started your career editing fiction and documentary films.
César Díaz: Yes, when I got out of film school, as a screenwriter, nobody in Belgium or France [would] hire me. I start doing editing because this was the closest job leading to scriptwriting. [As an editor], I learned how to think more about the scene and the character’s objectives and obstacles and how to put it in [a] scene.
Mark Gordon: What did you learn from making your first film?
César Díaz: I think I learned to have the right distance to the characters, that distance that allowed you to go deeper [into] their feelings. It is strange. When you are so, so close to the characters, you are afraid to go deeper there because you have the same feeling, and it is hard for you. But when you have the right distance, you are able to go deeper [into] the characters without hurting yourself. Now that I have gone through this process, I have a different way to build the characters, more effective, denser, and more interesting.
Mark Gordon: What would you do differently in the next film?
César Díaz: I think I would concentrate on the relationships [between] the characters. Because at some point, during the process of Nuestras Madres, I lost myself a little bit in the context of how not to make it too political or historical. Right now, I understand that the only thing that makes a movie is a relationship between the characters. Everything else comes later.
Mark Gordon: Have you screened the film in Guatemala?
César Díaz: No, it’s a real shame because we were supposed to have a huge event on the 19th of March at the National Theater with 2,000 people and then the National release and then going to the village to show [the film] to the woman and then, everything was canceled because of the coronavirus.
Mark Gordon: I like this notion that all things lead to a positive intention. Bad things happen but then as time passes, we realize that something good comes out of it. What do you think the positive intension will be with the situation in Guatemala?
César Díaz: That somehow we just try to get some resilience, not only as individuals but also in a collective way. The problem is that we never talked about the war after the peace agreement got signed. [With] just a signature, we [erased] everything. The positive thing is we can just think about how to get resilence right now.
Mark Gordon: Perhaps your film will be a catalyst for that?
César Díaz: This is the reason I really want to show it here [in Guatemala]. This is the reason I wanted to share the experience with the people. I want the people who disagree with me, that believe that the genocide didn’t happen, just come and watch the film and then have a dialogue around it. We don’t have to agree but I think we need to talk about it. This is the reason why I really wanted to show the film here.