Two compelling films from remote corners of the earth, one of them nominated for an Oscar,  are recently available to stream.  Both are about young girls growing to maturity in a cultures linked to traditional ways, one more deeply that the other. Both live in amazing locations.  Both are low-budget, professionally done explorations of real issues in human social evolution, from the closely bound tribal ego to today’s individualism, growing out of, and away from, tribe and family.  They are fine examples of the new indie film sensibility:  “film local, show global.”

Ixcanul / Volcano is set in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala. A beautiful, slow, close-up of a young Mayan woman being dressed for her wedding takes us into a tale of youthful love and adventure pushing against traditions and economies of her subsistence farming family. The volcano is a part of their lives, determining the weather and the soil, the mysterious center of their faith.

Maria (María Mercedes Coroyhas been promised as wife to the foreman of the land her parents live and work on.  He seems a likable enough fellow, older than Maria to be sure, perhaps by ten years, and also Mayan. But the engagement conversation around a rickety outdoor table with food and a bottle of cuxa for toasting, is pure business.  Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo) is politely interrogated by Maria’s family; her bonafides as a cook and coffee grower are declared.  “She has fertility in her hands,” her mother declares, to everyone’s sly enjoyment.  They do not know each other, it seems, except for passing notice around the ranch.  This is the way life has always been and, for the parents, with their only daughter, a very good deal.  Their lives depend on the foreman, not in any threatening way, but because that’s how life is.

Maria, however, has different ideas.  She has her eyes on a boy of her own age, a boy who interests her and is interested in her.  She puts off his insistent approaches until he promises to take her to the United States. Once promised, coupling happens, and promise is broken;  boyfriend is off through Mexico to imagined riches in Usa.  As Maria begins to show her state her mother is frantic, and ready with potions, advice about jumping stiff-legged and other remedies, none of which work.  Discovering the matter, Ignacio has them pack up and leave.  “Where to?”  “I don’t know,” he shrugs.

Maria, comes up with a plan.  Believing the words of her mother that a pregnant woman can chase poisonous snakes away, she undertakes to clear them from their fields, and by so reaping the gratitude of Ignacio, be able to stay . The plans once upset are upset again, however.  Snakes do not flee when human feet approach, they attack.  Maria falls in mortal danger.  A wrenching ride in the back of the only pickup available, Ignacio’s,  with her fearful, guilt-ridden mother gets her to the hospital   A hand-held camera, the under-lit scene and frantic exclamations in Mayan, add to the sense of catastrophe.  Maria survives but is told the baby does not.  Her disgrace now known, Ignacio cannot be expected to want her as his wife.  But he as been their driver and their translator from Mayan to Spanish through the whole ordeal, he is a decent fellow, and then, there are the three children….

The greens of coffee fields,  the fog around the smoking volcano, live fire in the crater where mother and daughter go to pray, the stoic, beauty of the young girl all add to our sense of being invited into the lives of people, so different from us, but then again, not so….

Available at Netflix.

Tanna, is the name of the film and also the island, 11, 500 km away from Guatemala. It is  one of several islands that made up the nation of Vanuatu, after decolonizing from the British and the French in the 1980s.

The stakes for the young woman, WaWa (Marie Wawa are even higher here than in Ixcanul, as love-relations push against not only tradition and economics but millennial old  custom.  It is not just a family that will suffer if the plans are upturned, but a whole tribe. Although she is in love with Dain (Mungau Dain,) she is meant to be a gift, cementing an end of hostilities with a neighboring tribe, which had escalated to the beating death of a shaman.  If she and Dain live together as they wish to, in a love-marriage, the conciliatory exchange will not happen and hostilities will recommence between the two tribes.  When the couple runs to the jungle, war parties from both tribes go after them.

Her younger sister, Selin (Marceline Rofit) acts, in a way, as our guide, our vehicle of intrusion.  She is still outside the hormonal new world WaWa is entering, but close enough as a sister to take an intense interest in her happiness and well-being.  

The setting includes an active volcano, as does Ixcanul, appropriate to the passions involved.  The immediate environs are not scrub slopes as in Ixcanul but lush tropical rain-forests, providing palm and cane for roofs, skirts and penis-protectors (koteka.).  The actors are all locals, none with any previous acting experience.  According to the film makers, Martin Butler and Bentley Dean from Australia, the chief played the chief, the shaman the shaman, the warriors the warriors.  And what a terrific experience for us, invited to look on — from solemn parley, to rushing war-expedition, we are there.

The story is told from actual experience of the tribe, one that led to a change in tribal custom, allowing love-marriages among the young for the first time, a recent evolution into modernity and individualism. The script, apparently, was written during a year-long stay on the island by the film-makers, with extensive help from the very people being filmed.

In both films we are treated to seldom heard languages, Maya for the Mayan and Nauvhal for the Telick people. Ixcanul includes Spanish, as well, and translation between the two.  Both have decent, follow-able, sub-titles.

The African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) named Tanna the best foreign film for the 2016.  It won won the Audience Award Pietro Barzisa at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival and was the Australian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017. Some of the cast attended in full, native regalia.  Apparently, despite their Rousseauean existence as depicted in the film, they are quite canny exploiters of tourist curiosity about their customs.  This interesting article from an ethnobiologist familiar with the area is worth reading, perhaps after you see the movie, which you will be happy you did.

Available at Amazon.

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