An Existential Drama in the Jungle

in 35th Mar del Plata International Film Festival

by Jan Storø

The FIPRESCI Jury at this year’s Mar del Plata International Film Festival has decided to give its price to Tragic Jungle (Selva trágica, 2020), directed by Yulene Olaizola. This is Olaizola’s fifth feature film.

In this film we are invited to the jungle on the border between Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula  and Belize (British Honduras in the time of the story). We are in the 1920s, and Olaizola presents us to a group of men working for a rich boss to extract gum from trees.

The jungle is a dangerous place to be. The men work high in the trees with limited security. Anyone operating in the jungle may be confronted by a stranger with a weapon. And the British are in the area claiming the gum. The scene is filled with brutality. And the brutality of the nature is presented in an almost calm, but nevertheless forceful, way.

In the midst of this landscape inhabited by male fortune-seekers and manual laborers with machetes, a woman appears. Her name is Agnes, but the men don’t know this because she only speaks English, while their languages are Spanish, Creole and Mayan. The men take her for a nurse, since she is dressed in white. They tell her to heal a man in the group who is seriously ill. Agnes accepts this task.

We do not know exactly where she comes from. It is fair to say that we do not know where she ends up. And, when it comes down to it, we cannot be sure who she is. There is an interesting and gripping mysticism to Agnes. She does not speak, but she observes what goes on around her. And she is given an increasingly active role in the last part of the film.

The acting is interesting here. I understand most of the men on screen to be amateurs. This makes them even more connected to the jungle. In some scenes we almost get a feeling of being part of real people`s lives. But Tragic Jungle is fiction, not documentary. The realistic feeling needs to be integrated in our interpretation of this fictional drama.

A narrator connects the story of the film with the local Mayan myth about Xtabay, a female demon who lures men in order to kill them. We understand that Agnes` character is given this role.

Various elements are elegantly mixed in a story that can in one sense be understood on a realistic level, but also can be interpreted as myth or fable: what happens to the men while they seek to bring the gum to a buyer; the tension between masculinity and femininity as the group is expanded with the mysterious woman whom all the men desire; and the ever present wilderness that represents a power far beyond the human forces.

Different interpretations are available: for me, this is one of this film`s assets. But a certain breadth of possibilities does not in itself make a film interesting. The story and the way it is told also need some kind of x-factor that either suspends disbelief or in some other way convinces its audience to stay put until the end.

In Tragic Jungle we are given a little less than we need the whole way through. Just a little less. From where has the woman escaped? What is the leader of the group planning to do with her? Are the men friends, or possible enemies? Such questions make it impossible not to stay with the film until its end. At least that was my experience.

To tell a story with just a little less information than needed is risky. There is a thin line between intrigue and irritation. In this film, Yulene Olaizola and her crew are on the right side of that line.

 Jan Storø
Edited by José Teodoro