The aftermath of the Guatemalan Civil War and genocide is the background for Our Mothers (Nuestras Madres) from Belgian-Guatemalan writer/director Cesar Diaz. The film received attention at various festivals, including winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes Critics’ Week. It was Belgium’s official submission for Best International Feature Oscar consideration.
Ernesto (Armando Espitia) is a young man who works for an agency that identifies the remains taken from mass graves. They assemble the skeletal remains, test DNA, and return the bones to families for proper burials. He has a personal stake in this process: his father was among those who were disappeared during the Civil War. When an indigenous woman from a rural areas asks him to exhume the bodies near her village, she has a picture he thinks might include his father in the group of guerillas. His mother Cristina (Emma Dib) tries to discourage him, but he wants to know the truth. When he arrives at the village, a number of women show up wanting to bear witness to what happened. We don’t hear their testimonies, but we see a series of visual portraits of the women.
When he returns home, and continues his work, he receives word that his father’s remains have been unearthed. It is at this point that the question of truth begins to come to the fore. Cristina is getting ready to testify at a trial of some of those responsible for the genocide. The truth she shares is not the story that Ernesto has heard all his life. There are things she has tried to shield her son from. But now it all becomes known.
The fact that much of this film takes place in the presence of bones provides an excellent metaphor. The opening shot is of bones being placed together to make a complete skeleton. The bones are not the whole person. They are not themselves the story or the truth. They only remind us of what once was. The real story must be built around this framework, and what is missing is as important as what we see. The bones are not the truth, but as we hear the stories told about these people, the truth takes on flesh.
In press notes, Diaz says he had started off to make a documentary about survivors of the genocide, but when he heard the accounts of rural villagers, he wanted a different way to tell those stories. He says that in the Guatemalan Indian tradition, things must be spoken to bring them into existence. The film is not actually about the stories (although we hear a few of them); it is more about the importance of speaking and hearing the stories.
The trial that is going on throughout the film has grabbed the attention of the society. It is on TVs and radios everywhere Ernesto goes. He is captivated by the stories. But oddly, when his mother is in the car with him, she keeps wanting to turn it off. We understand later that she does not need to hear the stories; she lived them. But is does become important for Ernesto to hear those stories—even the ones that Cristina tries to protect him from. The truth is not just what happened in the past. The truth only becomes real when it is spoken and heard.
Our Mothers is available through Virtual Cinema.