CLFF Review: ‘Where the Sun is Born’

Guatemala | 2012 | 85 min.
Director: Elías Jiménez
Genre: Drama
Spanish with English subtitles


A well-known truism states “history is written by the victors,” and this is no more evident than in the widely-accepted myth explaining the so-called “disappearance” of the Mayan people. As the legend goes, when the Spanish conquistadors landed in the Yucatán and explored Central America, they found the once-great cities of the Maya largely abandoned. While it’s true that centers like Copán (Honduras), Tikal (Guatemala) and Palenque (Chiapas) were left to the forests during the 8th and 9th centuries, Mayan civilization was still thriving when Hernández de Córdoba and his men first appeared of the coast of Cabo Catoche in 1517. So impressed were they with the cities and buildings they came across that they named the place El gran Cairo, after one of the other great civilizations of the world.

This is where director Elías Jiménez begins Where the Sun is Born. The story follows Maya (played by different actresses), a young girl who’s forced to flee to the protection of the forest when armored invaders burn her home to the ground and capture her mother. With the help of her ancestors, she learns of the mystical power her people possess and of the threats to it by outsiders. As she matures into a woman, her life spans the 500 years of post-Columbian history of the Maya: the tiny communities evading Spanish-speaking horsemen, the droughts and the barren lands. Along the way she turns a blind eye to her culture and its ruination, which leads to her castigation by the spirit world. In the end, Maya must return to her people and the lessons of her ancestors or risk seeing their lives erased forever by pale-faced foreign devils.

Wittgenstein once supposed that “if a lion could talk, we would not understand him”; the animal’s points of references would be so different from ours that his thoughts and speech would be unintelligible to us. The same is less true of people from different cultures. I would say much of the plot and nearly all of the symbolism in Where the Sun is Born was lost on almost all of the audience. The first half of the movie is easy enough to follow: Maya and her people are trying to eke out a living on barren lands and not get captured by the Spanish speakers.

Suddenly Maya’s lying on a raft floating down a wide river while a man dressed as a scarlet macaw squawks reprimands at her which are translated through subtitles. The rest of the movie is in Quiché, not in Spanish, and reading subtitles is difficult enough when you’re not also struggling to fully comprehend what is being said. There’s plenty of talk about ancestors, sacred knowledge and a special relationship with nature and its elements. Early in the movie we learn through Maya’s spirit ancestor that the bee is her protector animal, and they come to her rescue in one scene by covering her entire body as she hugs a tree, thus camouflaging her from pursuing horsemen. Monkey men appear, and sections of the movie begin with obscure passages from Popol Vuh, a mystical and sacred collection of Mayan texts. The antagonism between the Maya and the invaders is oversimplified, and the film ends with a cliché deus ex machina: the leaves brown, the water dries up, the Spanish speakers choke and die, and then the landscape becomes lush again.

That said, the value of Jiménez’s film is not in its cinematics, but its contribution to the culture of Guatemala, Central and the New World at large. Where the Sun is Born product of two years of workshops at school run by Casa Comal, an arts & culture organization in Guatemala dedicated to introducing young people to the world of Central American filmmaking. Their program for the training of Maya students in filmmaking is sponsored by the Norwegian Embassy. This movie may not be an impressive achievement in moviemaking by Hollywood’s standards, but it’s a great leap forward for people of Mayan heritage.

The message is clear: we’re still here, still resisting the destruction of our culture, and we have our own stories to tell.

The storyline in Where the Sun is Born is difficult to follow, and its aspects are hard to understand, so I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone looking to be entertained. But I expect Casa Comal will produce more, much better films in the future, and I look forward to watching them.

[Photo: Chicago Latino Film Festival]

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