But a lot of things I had in mind writing it didn’t even have to necessarily happen in Latin America. It’s really a generic title: “Men With Guns.” I put in elements of Bosnia, Vietnam, Russia.
--John Sayles1

Some have postulated, given the lack of an explicitly named country and time, that director John Sayles’ eleventh film,2 Men with Guns, is set in Guatemala during its civil war (that is to say, between 1960 and 1996, though if nothing else, the models of the vehicles shown place it much nearer the end of that period than the beginning). In one sense, the specific locale which frames the story is of little import and less consequence. The film’s story and message, as in any worthwhile film—indeed, any worthwhile example of the storytelling art, whether cinematographic or literary—transcend setting to express what William Faulkner in his Nobel Prize speech called “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.”3 Nonetheless, in an equally true sense, the locale is immensely important, because it instantiates the particular from the general. Even disregarding Sayles’ quote, that Men with Guns takes place in Latin America is obvious, yet the exact country remains somewhat elusive. But is it Guatemala?

Firstly, the obvious: during the course of the film, both Spanish and at least one indigenous language are spoken, the latter by indigenous people who in some cases know no Spanish. Guatemala boasts twenty-three officially recognized languages in addition to Spanish, and with estimates of its indigenous population at around 50%, that there might well exist people who speak and understand only the tongue of their forefathers certainly does not strain credibility. On the other hand, other countries besides Guatemala— Bolivia, Peru, etc.—have sizeable indigenous populations, so language alone does not confirm the setting.4

Other indicators point to Guatemala. During his peregrinations, Dr Fuentes comes across Sugar People, Coffee People, and Gum People. These three commodities are among the top agricultural products in Guatemala’s economy (though, again, other countries could claim the same). As well, some negative evidence is forthcoming; while in the ruins, Dr Fuentes tells Andrew who the indigenous peoples are not: they are not Aztecs or Olmecs or Toltecs.

Attitudes of those in power toward indigenous peoples may provide a better clue. At one point, a police captain—whose clothing was of military cut, but which bore no rank insignia or other device, indicating perhaps the poorly-differentiated line between civilian and military elites in Guatemala—implicitly associates the indigenous peoples with guerillas, although Dr Fuentes still retains his innocence at this point in the story, and fails to understand. Later, in the horrifically ironically-named “Community of Hope” camp, the army5 sergeant explicitly equates the two. Such an attitude is in keeping with Guatemalan governmental policy during the civil war.

The movie’s ending also suggests that Guatemala is the setting. When the little ragtag band comes finally to the end of their journey, they indeed find peace, but still it is no paradise. Domingo, Conejo, and Graciela have all reached a catharsis, but in that purging, they are left in a potentially dangerous land with nothing, not even the little they had in their previous lives. They must go forward and do the best they may in a life for which they are not well prepared. Domingo, the former soldier, begins the process (with a push from the indigenous Graciela) by using what small skills he learned as a medic, untrained but knowing that something must be done and that there is no one else to do it. Cerca del Cielo could well symbolize Guatemala’s present (when the film was released in 1997, a year after the end of the civil war) and future. Following that thirty-six year trial by fire, the remaining elements of Guatemalan society have chosen to try and help one another do what needs to be done, despite (to put it mildly) inadequacies in many areas.

In the end, despite obviously clear correlations, the answer to whether Sayles set his movie in Guatemala or in some other country cannot be definitively answered, particularly in light of his own comments on the subject. It could be Guatemala; the story certainly works that way. But it could be elsewhere, also. Dr Fuentes’ naive reply when asked about “atrocidados” that “Such things do not happen in this country” is a widespread one.6 Ultimately, art serves as a mirror of the human condition, whether in Guatemala, in China, in Turkey, in Canada, or (maybe someday) on Mars. And as long as the hombres armados, the men with guns, somewhere impose their whims on others, the truths of Men with Guns will continue to be applicable.

1Sayles, John. Interview by Michael Snyder. “Man with Guts.” Salon. 13 March 1998. http://archive.salon.com/ent/int/1998/03/13int.html
2Technically, the exact number depends on how one defines “film.” In this case, specifically not included are his music video work on behalf of Bruce Springsteen and, of course, his work on the television series “Shannon’s Deal.”
3See http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1949/faulkner-speech.html for the complete text of the speech.
4Particularly since Kuna, the language spoken by “Mother,” is spoken primarily in Colombia and Panama. See Longacre, Robert E. and Frances M. Woods, eds. Discourse Grammar: Studies in Indigenous Languages of Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador. (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1977).
5At several points throughout the film, soldiers’ rifles are shown in profile, making the M16A2 an easy identification; although this shows that their government was probably a US client (owing to the fact that the AK-47 and its derivatives are rather cheaper and thus more often preferred by entities not sponsered by the US—the guerillas in the ruins, for example, carried them), they would hardly be alone in that during this period.
6Translate it into Russian, for example, and almost word for word it becomes a sentence in Lydia Chukovskaya’s novella about life in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s purges, Sofia Petrovna.

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