JOSÉ – The price of working class queerness in Guatemalan currency

Depends on the rent-by-the-hour hotel. The winner of last year’s Queer Lion Award JOSÉ is part of an evergrowing struggle of queer cinema directors to overcome the monopoly of the white skin, upper class, Occidental LGBT+ community representation in cinema. Wanuri Kahiu’s RAFIKI and Ivana Mladenovic’s SOLDIERS. STORY FROM FERENTARI were such films that became festival darlings in no time, and many more can be named, including the ones that haven’t integrated themselves in the commercial and hierarchical festival circuit.

José (Enrique Salanic) is a working-class teenager who leads an uneventful life in the slums of the overcrowded Guatemala City. He works at a sandwich shop and struggles to earn enough money for him and his mother (Ana Cecilia Mota), to whom he’s very close in a traditional Latin American way. Their improvised home depicts alarming poverty which they try to overcome together. His routine is occasionally broken by discreet sex dates with guys which José meets online, itself a routine which many queer persons would recall from their time spent in the closet. Naturally, there comes a time when José embraces not only gay sex, but gay love – he falls for Luis (Manolo Herrera), a migrant construction worker who’s in the city for a project, and Luis falls for him. When José faces the chance of abandoning his two lives – that of a devoted son and that of a closeted single gay man –, his world is shaken.

The novelty is, of course, a queer love story on the streets of Guatemala with an all-native cast. Li Cheng pays a lot of attention to the dynamic between the character and the surroundings, using Guatemala City’s authentic chaos in order to induce José anxiety by filming on location. The camera is either slowly following the characters or standing still, allowing people to come closer, get in or out of the shot, a raw dose of the streets’ authenticity, from which the couple is hiding in a rent-by-the-hour hotel.

And there are many issues on the Guatemalan streets the two should hide from. The LGBT+ individuals are mentioned in the country’s anti-discrimination laws and there’s been a constant political and religious pressure on them. The rejection of the ‘Life and Family Protection’ bill came as a blessing for both the LGBT+ community and for women. The bill proposed a more severe criminalization of abortion (already limited to the cases in which the life of a pregnant woman is in danger) and imposed a discriminatory definition of family and gender. Even with its failure, the bill exposed once again the cultural demons of Guatemala – homo- and transphobia, misogynism and other forms of discrimination.

An encouraging novelty from the Guatemalan elections from 2015 was the victory of Sandra Morán, the first outspoken queer individual to be elected to Congress. She is known as an advocate for rights of women, indigenous groups and LGBT+ individuals. However, the elections also brought the victory of president Jimmy Morales, a vocal evangelical Protestant who is against abortion, same-sex marriage and has been accused of racism. Besides his conservative agenda and the problematic populist speech, that of a “common citizen” (and not a politician), Morales is particularly known for his conflict with The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Sandra Morán is also a legislator of the anti-imperialist and socialist party Convergencia, which has opposed Morales law immunity after a disastrous fire at a state-run home for minors.

Besides the political tension, the LGBT+ community is a victim of police violence, institutionalized discrimination against access to education, justice, protection, and health care. Corrective rape is supposed to be a regular unofficial practice. These are only glimpses of the hate that fills the streets in Guatemala. That’s why the moment in which José and Luis go out to eat feels so confrontational, even if they barely exchange tender looks. Li Cheng’s film has its novelty in the geopolitical context, but it makes use of commonplace elements from love genre films such as the love story of the coming of age. But this doesn’t reduce the film’s value in any way. The motorcycle moment which we already know is a mundane both romantic and erotic situation gains a much more emotional tension when on the vehicle there are two Guatemalan gay men on it. Watching people fall in love is charming, but knowing they might fall into unjustified social disgrace as well is generating the kind of tension and anxiety Li Cheng delivers so well in his film.

The 2019 Guatemalan general election will be held on June 16.

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