Writer/director Cesar Diaz’s OTHER MOTHERS (NUESTRAS MADRES) is a harrowing testimony of the atrocities committed during the Guatemalan Civil War and subsequent genocide of the country’s Maya population. The film begins and ends with hauntingly still aerial shots of human bones, and while NUESTRAS MADRAS is set outwith the years of the Civil War, its sensitive portrayal of the horrors of the past feels sincere rather than overdramatised.
Winner of the Caméra d’Or in Cannes 2019 and screened as part of the Window on the World strand at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, OUR MOTHERS’ protagonist, Ernesto Gonzalez (Armando Espitia), is a forensic anthropologist tasked with excavating the bones dumped in mass graves during the war. Ernesto hopes that in one of these graves he will discover the remains of his father, a rebel fighter who was also killed. One day, Ernesto’s daily routine is interrupted as he records the testimony of Nicolasa (Aurelia Caal), a Maya woman whose husband was murdered by soldiers and his body, alongside others in the village, buried in a mass grave. Although Ernesto initially seems undaunted by Nicolasa’s story – a signal of the extent of the killings – when Nicolasa shows Ernesto a picture of her husband, he recognises his father standing alongside. Ernesto is instantly captivated and travels to Nicolasa’s village to attempt to recover the bones and search for more information about his father. As the rest of the film unfolds it reveals many horrors of war and provides insight into the impact of the war on Guatemala’s people and the scars which are still healing.
Nicolasa’s character is a link between the atrocities of the past and the realities of the present and, significantly, the film gives weight to her voice. Indeed, all of the women in this film are representative of the past, and OUR MOTHERS is interested in their testimony. These women are the ones left to remember the truth and their faces are haunting reminders of the terrors faced. Diaz’s decision to include a portrait section in OUR MOTHERS, where we see a succession of framed close up shots of the Maya women from Nicolasa’s village, tries to highlight the importance of the female experience. Although the film is unable to voice all of their accounts, it reminds us of the validity of their experiences and reemphasises the scale of the civil war’s impact.
Testimony is at the heart of this film, from Nicolasa’s testimony of her husband’s death to the media reports of the ongoing court case whose sounds repeatedly punctuate the film. However, none of these moments are more poignant than Ernesto’s mother’s own testimony. Despite Cristina’s (Emma Dib) initial reluctance to recount her experiences, she eventually decides she must tell her story. The scene in the courtroom is one of the most harrowing in the film and Dib’s performance is superb. Although this moment is harrowing, it does not have the impact that it could have done as it lacks build up as Dib is not given enough character development in the film’s first half.
OUR MOTHERS provides a tangible sense of the impact of the Civil War using few characters and stories. All of the film’s characters have an authenticity surrounding them which are aided by layered portrayals. OUR MOTHERS focusses on the personal experience to reflect the national impact of the Civil War, rather than trying to attempt to depict broader themes which may not have held as much weight. The focus on the female experience in the film is important but could have gone further. Christina, Ernesto’s mother, holds the most powerful storyline in the film, yet she is hardly seen in the first half. In areas, plot lines can feel underdeveloped and under-finished. Although the female experience is valued in this film, it is not its focus. While Ernesto’s story and character journey is an entirely valid one, OUR MOTHERS may have been a more interesting story if more weight had been given to his mother’s tale. While female testimony is at the heart of this film, it is a male experience which drives it.