With Guatemala as this year’s guest country of honor at the 36th Guadalajara Int’l Film Festival (FICG), the festival will be screening more than a dozen films from this tiny Central American country, including one of its recent standouts, Justin Lerner’s “Cadejo Blanco.” The female-driven crime drama stages its world premiere Oct. 3 at the fest where it competes in the official Ibero-American Features section.
Although born in Boston, Lerner’s ties with Guatemala run deep, where he even proposed to his French-American wife at the edge of a volcano. More importantly, he helped with the creation of a film school there in 2016 where he was its first film professor. It was while teaching there when one of his students introduced him to the picturesque Caribbean coastal town of Puerto Barrios where “Cadejo Blanco” mainly takes place.
For two years, he visited the town and interviewed its youth, many linked to gangs, collecting their life stories and ultimately casting some of them to play versions of themselves in the film he began to write. “They were involved in the script throughout the process, editing and correcting to make sure it was authentic,” said Lerner.
While fictional, “Cadejo Blanco” exposes the seedy underbelly of what Lerner considers one of the most beautiful places in Guatemala. The white ‘cadejo’ in the title is a mythical four-legged creature, a cross between a wolf and a dog, that protects people from harm.
Guatemalan-born Karen Martínez, who played in “La Jaula de Oro” meriting a 2013 Cannes Un Certain Regard ensemble prize winner for her performance, plays Sarita, who goes in search of her missing sister to Puerto Barrios where her sister’s boyfriend, a gang member, lives. She risks her life to infiltrate the gang and eventually learns the truth behind her sister’s disappearance.
Most of the cast are non-professionals, former gang members who project both a youthful innocence and grit as they commit violent crimes in order to survive their turf wars.
“’Cadejo Blanco’ is more about the transformation of a young woman,” says Lerner as Sarita seeks closure – or perhaps revenge – for her sister.
The drama is Lerner’s third film but is the first that he filmed in Spanish outside of the U.S. “The crews in Guatemala are the best I’ve ever worked with, in terms of talent, efficiency, and ability,” he asserted, adding: “They work harder, are serious but also know how to have fun; there was a big sense of family, it didn’t feel like work.” Aside from his Argentine DP Roman Kasseroller (“Cocote,” “A Mother”), the rest of his department heads and crew were from Guatemala, many of whom have trained in the multiple TV commercials, documentaries and shorts that have filmed there.
“In any shoot, there will invariably be a Central American crew member,” says Joaquin Ruano, head of the Guatemalan Commission on Film Festivals who cited Nicaraguan-set “Daughter of Rage,” which swept San Sebastian’s Latam WIP awards. “It had a sizeable Guatemalan crew of at least eight,” he points out.
“The bulk of the film’s financing is mostly Guatemalan, which is quite unusual,” says “Cadejo Blanco” producer Mauricio Escobar of La Danta Films who concurred with Lerner about the quality of the crews in Guatemala. “Justin is a great leader and knows how to motivate people,” he added.
Escobar has worked on Jayro Bustamante’s “La Llorona,” a leading multiple nominee at this year’s Premios Platino in Madrid and Guatemala’s submission to the 93rd Academy Awards. It also screens in Guadalajara as part of the retrospective.
Filmmaker Cesar Diaz, winner of Cannes’ 2019 Critics’ Week Grand Prize and Camera d’Or for his drama “Our Mothers” (“Nuestras Madres”), is a partner in La Danta Films and is an editor and executive producer of “Cadejo Blanco.”
Despite the worldwide recognition and acclaim of films led by Diaz and Bustamante, Guatemalan filmmakers receive no state support. There is no film law as yet. “These films reveal the problems of the country so the state is not interested in backing them,” said Ruano who admits that the commission he heads was borne out of the invitation from Guadalajara.
When Guatemala’s Minister of Culture did not even reply to Guadalajara’s invitation, they saw the need to form this commission, made up of the Guatemalan Association of Audiovisual and Cinematography, the new Guatemalan Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences and La Casa de Producción, its main function being to coordinate the participation of Guatemala as FICG’s guest country of honor, said Ruano.
Despite the lack of state support, Guatemala is spawning a new generation of filmmakers, producing an average of eight films a year, Ruano asserted, adding: “The past five, six years have especially seen the emergence of a new generation of women filmmakers from Central America,” citing Guatemalan filmmakers Anais Taracena (“El Silencio del Topo”), Ana Isabel Bustamante (“La Asfixia”), Camila Urrutia (“Polvora en el Corazon”), Izabel Acevedo (“El Buen Cristiano”) as well as “Cadejo Blanco” executive producer Pamela Guinea, among others.
The Guatemala-U.S.-Mexico co-production, officially presented at TIFF Industry Selects in September, is repped in the U.S. by Trevor Groth’s 30West and in the rest of the world by WaZabi Films.
It is co-produced by Imperative Entertainment, La Danta Films and The Orange Company in association with Cine Caribe.
FICG36 runs over October 1-9.