MOTHER TONGUE chronicles the first time a documentary film about Guatemalan genocide was translated and dubbed into the indigenous language Maya-Ixil. Told from the perspective of Matilde Terraza, an emerging Ixil leader and the translation project’s coordinator, MOTHER TONGUE illuminates the resilience of the Ixil community—5.5% of whom were killed during the armed conflict in the 1980s.

Synopsis: 

In Guatemala, a clandestine civil war, rooted in the “mainstream” ladino (Euro-Hispanic) population’s historic discrimination and repression of the indigenous Maya people, took place from the 1960s until the 1990s, when the Peace Accords were signed.

When a democratic movement emerged in the 1970s, responding to a repressive military dictatorship, this movement was forced underground and many factions moved their bases to Maya villages in the highlands, which in turn spurred some members of those communities to join the struggle. The Guatemalan government responded to this movement with a counter-insurgency campaign: In 1980s the military instituted a systematic plan to end guerrilla warfare targeted specifically at the Maya population.

Over the years that followed, the army methodically moved across the Maya region implementing a scorched earth policy. In this time, they destroyed over 626 villages, killed or “disappeared” more than 200,000 people and displaced an additional 1.5 million, with more than 150,000 seeking refuge in neighboring Mexico.

In the years since the genocide, a documentary about the armed conflict has never been translated into any of the Indigenous languages of the Maya people most affected by the events of the 1980s—until now. MOTHER TONGUE follows the unprecedented process of translating GRANITO: HOW TO NAIL A DICTATOR, a documentary film about the genocide in Guatemala and the quest for justice, with voice-over into Ixil—the language of one of the Indigenous groups most affected by the armed conflict.

The creation of the voice-over version of the film was, at its root, a pragmatic decision—Ixil is primarily a spoken language and moreover, not everyone in the Ixil community is literate, making subtitles unfeasible. The process of translating and recording the story of GRANITO, however, brought much more to surface—the pervasive intergenerational consequences of genocide, the importance of collective memory, the depth of fear that remains in the Ixil community, and the profound resilience of the Ixil population, 5.5% of whom were killed in the genocide.

MOTHER TONGUE is also the story of self-discovery of an emerging Maya leader and the coordinator of the Ixil-translation project, Matilde Terraza. Set in the regional capital of Nebaj, (“land of streams”) the film begins in a small, makeshift recording studio where Matilde sits with a group of people she’s gathered to read the various parts in GRANITO for the Ixil dubs. “I feel that in Nebaj,” Matilde says, “you won't find anyone who doesn't identify with the situation that happened, the entire conflict.”

The film weaves Matilde’s narrative with the storyline of the translation process of GRANITO into Ixil, and culminates with the first public screening of the translated film in the town of Nebaj, six months after the recording sessions. People gather in the town square, setting up plastic chairs while others erect a large portable screen for the world premiere of the Ixil language version, titled Tal B’aq’ Ivatz Sanab’: Nu’kich Aq’on, K’ulb’al Tib’ Txumb’al.

As it grows dark, the chairs fill with all four generations of the Ixil community—from grandchildren to great-grandparents. Before the film starts Matilde and Antonio, an Ixil man and a lead character in GRANITO, speak to the audience about the importance of remembering. Matilde explains that screening GRANITO in Ixil, “has the potential to be controversial, because the people will want to join the cause.” Darkness soon envelops the plaza: The film starts and the Ixil dubbed sound booms out through the sound system as the light from the projection flickers across Maya faces intent on the filmed action, remembering the past.