Jayro Bustamante’s Tremors (Temblores) tells the story of handsome, successful, wealthy Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager), who falls in love with Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadúa), and the terrible repercussions that this wreaks.
Pablo, a member of a religious and socially conservative family of European heritage in Guatemala, is married to Isa, with whom he has two young children. We’re never told how or where Pablo and Francisco meet, or quite how his family discovers their relationship; instead we enter the story at the point which all hell begins to break loose.
Within the opening few minutes, the family reveal their ignorance and prejudice with repeated clichés about Pablo’s sexuality, variously described as a problem, a disease for which there must be a cure, and a sin. There is much talk of sacrificing one’s own happiness for the sake of others, a hypocrisy which would be funny were it not clear how earnestly they hold these views. They confuse homosexuality with paedophilia, so Pablo is forbidden from seeing his children. He loses his job because the company operates a “strict moral code”. He becomes ostracised: no family, no job, no home, and only the clothes on his back.
Increasingly cowed and desperate, Pablo tries to do ‘the right thing’, culminating in a process of increasingly brutal gay-conversion “techniques”. These include cold showers, semi-naked wrestling, group shaming and horrific clinical procedures, all delivered at the hand of a manipulative, glamorous (female) pastor and her acolytes. In the end, Pablo goes on to make a brave but ultimately tragic decision because the few options that he has have run out.
The tremors of the title refer to the occasional minor earthquakes that occur during the film, a metaphor for the seismic effect of Pablo’s actions. Additionally, they represent the ripple effects of homophobia beyond the LGBT community alone, repressing not just them but their families, spouses, children and employers alike. Everybody loses.
Tremors is one of Bustamante’s two films in this year’s BFI London Film Festival and it’s already done well at other festivals, scooping eight awards so far. The other, the creepy and unsettling La Llorona, is in the festival’s official competition. He’s made both within a year.
Bustamante is a thoughtful and insightful director, keen to tell the stories of Guatemala. His films have given a voice to those who are oppressed because of their ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. Tremors is the second film in a trilogy in which he explores three principal insults used in Guatemala, telling us much about its enduring white machismo attitudes. The first film, Ixcanul, was about “indio”, a word used to insult indigenous people. Tremors is about being gay in a society where homosexuality is considered “feminine”, and therefore “inferior”. La Llorona is about “communism”, supporting social justice and retribution for the genocide against the Maya-Ixil population during the civil war (1960-1996) which was mainly about land rights.
Tremors is a powerful reminder that there are still places where religious and social conservativism continue to prevail and where LGBT rights do not exist, making no exception for those who enjoy wealth and privilege in other parts of their lives.
By Karen Smith
Tremors plays the BFI London Film Festival.