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The Modern Maya: Resilience and Revival

Ixcanul becomes the first IC film entirely in Kaqchikel, a Mayan language.

For centuries, the lush landscapes in the heart of Guatemala have been home to the Maya people. Their ancient traditions remain present in South America, but the language of Kaqchickel remains largely unknown, especially to non-native speakers—that is, until the filming of Ixcanul. The movie shown on April 5, 2023, at International Cinema (IC) was the first shot with an entirely Native cast of Kaqchikel speakers. Eager to explore Kaqchikel and Maya culture, Professor Allen Christenson (Ethnology of the Maya) provided historical and cultural context for IC attendees to enhance viewers’ film experience.

Christenson argues that the Maya are the world’s oldest culture still around today. “Sometimes, we forget that Maya are not just an ancient culture but that there are millions and millions of Maya today,” Christenson said. They have a complex theology, written and spoken language, and books, making them an incredibly rich culture. The Maya are also responsible for growing and breeding some of our favorite foods, including cacao, chili peppers, strawberries, and maize.

But life for the Maya hasn’t always been peaceful. Between 1960 and 1996, a civil war raged in Guatemala, and Maya were tortured and killed. Speaking the language, dressing in traditional clothing, and naming children Maya names was strictly prohibited. Christenson noted that the government “tried very hard to forcibly assimilate Maya into Spanish-speaking society” to keep the peace. This context provided the basis for many of the characters’ interactions in the film, especially since they demonstrate most of their emotion with facial expressions. Because of the high stakes of speaking their native language, the Maya often choose to communicate more with their faces than with words.

Another thing that differentiates Maya culture from other cultures is that women dominate society because they are the only ones who can carry life. “For them, rebirth and life and purification are the height of these traditional communities,” Christenson said. In Ixcanul, the female actors are given the most prominent roles, showing their importance in society. In modern Guatemala, visitors will see “women with candles wrapped with banana leaves, and then the men follow behind,” Christenson said. “These are the most powerful members of society.”

Christenson’s cultural insights allowed viewers to fully immerse themselves in the International Cinema experience, helping them gain a deeper appreciation for both the historic and modern Maya culture.

For more movies, lectures, and cultural experiences like this, visit the IC website.

Photo by Jimmy Baum