Scene of the Oscar nominee movie La Llorona, by Jayro Bustamante. Photo: Courtesy

Latin America: when dictatorship and repression becomes a new type of film genre

Movies' industry is following an unusual path of terror and reinterpretation of historical facts. La Llorona, Guatemala's first production to be nominated for an Oscar, is just the last example of it. Understand how reality, especially the Latin American one, has become a fertile ground for horror movies

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Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), by the Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, was one of the precursors of the movie genre that mixes politics and terror as a tool of amazement. Perhaps it was the film that went deeper into the terrifying aspects of tyrannical systems. It develops unusually and playfully, in a visual and dreamy mixture, ranging from innocence to the brutality of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, under the eyes of a child, in a proportion not yet repeated in subsequent films.

Del Toro dethroned our most common fears, exchanging them for real ones from the past. Therefore, it was no longer worth having only ghosts, ETs, serial killers, sharks, and anacondas as protagonists of the scares mirrored by the film industry.

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When the South Korean film Parasite won the Oscar for best film in 2019, it initially appeared that the audiovisual industry and its critics were recognizing the strengthening of cross-border cinema. However, it was something bigger than that. The space was open for the reality of the social dysfunctions of the century to infiltrate strongly in the seventh art, with visual metaphors and resources common to horror films. A suspense script was presented as a kind of horror, as frightening as a ghost pulling the blanket under the bed.

And South American films have a leading role in this modality. The first Argentine film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film was The Official Story (1986), the first Oscar in Latin America. In it, a history teacher discovers, with suspense and horror, that she may be inadvertently submerged in a dictatorship that stole children from political prisoners, and that she may be the adoptive mother of one.

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The second Oscar for Best Foreign Film in South America, also from Argentina, cannot be placed in the same basket. However, it goes through the darkest periods in the history of that country. The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) brings up the dictatorship as a dismal and frightening period, a backdrop that further darkens the thriller.

The importance of solidifying the genre of terror is added to the historical revisionism that the Latin American continent is going through. Cinema does not fall short of the questions posed in this context and answers them with artistic reading, questioning the political past. Dictatorships, the social cushion absent in so many countries in the region, and the massacres of the original native peoples have raised crowds in protests.

The cry of regret

The general is in his labyrinth. Confronted by the massacre he perpetrated, by old age, disease, and decay. He is walled up by one of the most chilling legends in folklore. Trapped in his mansion with a ghost, he and his family are terrified by the past. This is the Guatemalan film La Llorona, by director Jayro Bustamante, nominee for the Oscar 2021, which comes specifically to deal with the dictatorship, with a certain revanchism. It is estimated that thousands of Mayans were massacred by military personnel between 1981 and 1983 in Guatemala.

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In the film, a general is acquitted by the courts, but he cannot escape the ghosts of the genocide he helped to perpetuate. Thus, his family starts to live with the secrets of the past, surrounded by the dead of the mansion, particularly the traditional figure of a woman with long black hair who cries intermittently. This figure, la llorona, is one of America’s most terrifying legends.

“Whatever is left behind, stays behind,” says the general’s wife to her daughter, who begins to understand that her father is a genocide. The phrase is also said to emphasize the silence that was imposed on certain historical events on the continent. It is still symbolic of three variables common to almost all of these countries: the lack of memory, the folklore (which, in the case of the film, is not seen as an abstraction but as a reality that comes to punish those who have escaped justice) and impunity, which permeates almost all political and legal systems in the region.

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The symbol of remorse

The ghost of the film is an old acquaintance of the arteries of this continent. Almost every country in the region has its own version of the myth of the woman dressed in white who mourns the death of the children she killed.

The first reports come from America before the Spanish conquest and come to be an omen of the children who would die with the conquest. Over the centuries, it has had several connotations in Latin American societies, from Mexico to Argentina. From a figure whose lust is punished to a vengeful woman against men who commit sexual crimes, or a metaphor of repentance from the woman who sacrificed her children in the context of war and dictatorship. Repentance permeates all the stories of this figure in the region.

It is the same fear that the continent has about digging up its past and confronting it, as has already been happening, for good and evil, in many countries in the region. It is an exhumation that tells a tale, a narrative. No, “the past has not been left behind”. Not only did it not stay, but it also became a haunt, and it is inside the closet.

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Today with the continent discussing dictatorships, massacres, and Latin America‘s tyrannical systems, la llorona’s myth reminds us that this cry may not be audible, but it is lurking waiting for us to cry, like the ghosts under the bed. It is part of a common script in the horror genre: the ghost only goes away when its pending issues in the world of the living are solved.