Feminism in Film
How the Lemlow Collective is using media arts to change Guatemala’s perception of gender roles
By Amanda Rachmat
April 12, 2019
Meet the Lemow Collective: a Guatemalan artistic initiative made up of seven women, looking to change the limited perspectives of the media. Their mission is to explore “gender equality, critical reflection, denunciation and respect for human rights” by producing short films and other audio-visual projects that tackle the issue of representation on-screen. The word Lemow, which comes from the Kaqchiquel language meaning ‘reflection’ or ‘mirror’, was chosen to represent the group as they aim to share the true reflections and perspectives of Latin American women.
Since their inception in 2013, The Lemow Collective has produced four short films, focusing on women’s lives in Guatemala. Veronica Sacalxot’s Camino, the collective’s first film, tells the story of a young married woman’s push for agency within her own life. After suffering abuse at the hands of her husband and mother-in-law, she struggles with trying to escape her abusive reality. The film ends as she finally decides to run away from her home, taking nothing with her but with an orphaned child from her village whom she hopes to help. The film leaves the audience with hope that she and the child are able to find happiness elsewhere. A sense of empowerment arises from the film, as a female protagonist takes her life in her own hands, a right that many young girls don’t have in Guatemala. The way in which she bravely exits her home of her abusers, without taking one look back, is a scene to remember.
Camino exposes gender inequalities prevalent within Guatemalan society. Many women are expected to marry at a very young age and participate solely in domestic and familial duties, making many feel like “prisoners in their own homes,” as Camino’s director Veronica Sacalxot of the Collective explains. While the collective’s inaugural film’s reach has been quite small in scope, it provides a strong statement of Lemow’s goal and sets the tone for their proceeding projects.
The Lemow Collective’s films feature realistic accounts of gender issues in Guatemala, and they work to expose the country’s systematic issues through raising awareness. By making films like Camino and increasing the representation of women within the media, the Collective hopes that their protagonists can inspire real women to take their lives into their own hands. We see the collective continue this goal with their following feature, The Eyes of Grandma, again written and directed by Camino’s Veronica Sacalxot. The 2017 short film is the story of a young woman listening to her grandmother recount the tragedy of losing her first love to the internal warfare in Guatemala during the early nineteen eighties. More than 200,000 lives were lost during this conflict between the government and indigenous Mayans, as the Mayan community advocated for social support and human rights. The Eyes of Grandma addresses the pain of the hundreds of thousands who were affected by these deaths.
Sacalxot’s second film showcases the importance of female family relationships, the relationship between the granddaughter and grandmother. The film emphasizes the importance of safe spaces within the community for women to gather and foster relationships with each other in order to reflect the pain and trauma faced by many Guatemalan women,.
The Lemow Collective’s work has been imperative to giving a voice to women in Guatemala, many of whom currently don’t have a platform. Examples of voice that lack representation include those of elderly women, like in in The Eyes of Grandma, as well as younger generations of women, such as the protagonists in Camino and Kat Waj, who hope to escape their domestic chains. Due to enforced gender inequalities, women, especially Indigenous women, often do not have adequate screen representation, not only in western media, but Latin American media as well.
With its largely conservative government, Guatemalans face a brutal gender equality crisis every day. The proposed 5272 Bill, which the Guatemalan Congress tried to pass at the end of August 2018, is intended to “protect family and life” and would ban abortion, same-sex marriage and sex education. If this bill is passed, abortion could be punished with up to ten years in prison. Furthermore, the bill classifies any sexual conduct other than heterosexuality as “incompatible with the biological and genetical aspects of the human being,” and limits the definition of a family as a “father, mother and the children under their tutorship.” Not only would these aspects of the bill push many to the peripheries of society, but it would also endanger women by blocking access to sexual health care, forcing them to seek out alternative methods for both birth control and clandestine abortions.
The Collective’s film Kat Waj attempts to challenge preconceived notions of gendered expectations of women. Kat Waj, translated from the Quiché language to I love you in English, was the Collective’s 2016 feature, selected to represent Guatemala at the Icaro 2016 International Film Festival. The film follows a young girl who makes a life-changing decision to rebel against her family in order to pursue her veneration for reading and curiosity of life. While not a winner in its category at the festival, the film’s international recognition helped The Lemow Collective make a name for themselves. They have since been invited to additional film festivals such as the Human Rights Festival in Bogotá and the Native Film Fest in Canada. Two years after its initial release, Kat Waj continues to tour international film festivals, and has most recently has been named the official selection of the 2018 Central American International Film Fest in Los Angeles.
The Collective’s most resent production, Iyoom is a documentary about a woman named Dominga Tambriz, who cares for the women in her community during pregnancy. Iyoom is currently in post-production and the teaser trailer is available on The Lemow Collective’s Facebook page.
The Lemow Collective does an excellent job at exposing social inequalities, but women in Guatemala also find themselves economically disenfranchised—a problem that has yet to be addressed. A significant portion of Guatemala’s economy revolves around farming, and even though 60-80% of small-scale farmers around the world are women, women only account for 7.8% of landowners in Guatemala. In a recent article from Scaling Up Nutrition, Juan Carlos Carías, secretary of the Secretariat of Food and Nutrition Security in Guatemala, declares “We need to achieve greater integration to provide more opportunities and rights.” However, in the very same article, these policy makers suggest that their goal for gender equality has more to do with economic improvement, rather than a desire to improve the lives of women. The article states that if women had equal access to land and other resources, that Guatemala’s “crop yields could increase between 20 and 30 per cent.” Yet it mentions nothing about the improvement of women’s own agency if they were to become landowners. Willem Olthof, Deputy Head of Unit, Rural Development, Food Security and Nutrition in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, has said that “Empowering women is one of the smartest investments that can be made,” reducing women to a piece of the economy, rather than as oppressed individuals.
The feminist movement in Guatemala did achieve a big step forward in 2016, when the first openly gay member of congress was elected. Sandra Moran’s perseverance and support, founded in grassroots activism, helped her achieve this tremendous victory. “In Guatemala to be a feminist is not welcomed, to be a lesbian, even less so,” she said after the win. “But the fact that I have always been transparent about who I am – a lesbian feminist – took away that weapon from those who use misogynist, sexist, and homophobic attacks as a political strategy.” This approach to facing systemic issues, of being transparent and unapologetically existing in one’s own body is exactly the attitude needed to combat the systematic oppression that women and the LGBTQ+ community faces, and is the attitude The Lemow Collective celebrates.
The Collective doesn’t restrict themselves to the production of short films, but have also organized film and photography exhibitions, including Reflejos, a film exhibition that focuses on gender; Origins a film exhibition that includes filmmakers from Mexican, Mayan, Xinkan, Ladina, and Garífuna cultures. Seres de Niebla is a photography and audiovisual project that looks to improve the working conditions of Guatemalan women and to create a more inclusive society.
Representation in media plays a significant role in bringing the diverse realities of those in the periphery to the forefront of our global consciousness. The Guatemalan film Ixcanul made waves back in 2016 for being the country’s first-ever Oscar entry, as a young, female protagonist faced prejudices as an indigenous Mayan. The film was Jayro Bustamante’s screenwriting and directorial debut, and struck critics for its stunning realism. Not only did the film focus on a young woman, but it also took a realistic account of the lives of the indigenous peoples in Guatemala exploited by the coffee industry. The film was internationally successful, to winning the Silver Bear at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.
In order to continue to work towards this mission of gender equality in the media, The Lemow Collective tours Central America, to schools and other public spaces, sharing the important narratives of the realities of young Guatemalan women. On an international scale, they have recently screened Katwaj in Spain, thanks to support from the Festival Internacional de Cine Invisible. Such international influence will certainly keep the Collective going strong; be sure to follow them on Facebook for their latest updates and upcoming work: @colectivolemow. ❖