Filmmaker Julian Moll-Rocek: “Inspired by the beauty of this forest, I knew I wanted to make a film”

After graduating from Harvard University in 2012, Julian Moll-Rocek spent three months in Guatemala as a summer field intern with EcoLogic. He returned to Guatemala in November 2012 with his brother Thomas to film the stories of the people of the 48 Cantones and their remarkable dedication to maintaining their ancestral community forest. Thomas Moll-Rocek worked in the film industry and filmed a series about the Interoceanic Highway in South America together with CONNECTAS and did several videos for One World Futbol in Africa and Asia. Since then, Thomas has put away his camera and is working on organic farms.

Brothers Thomas and Julian Moll-Rocek

Brothers Thomas and Julian Moll-Rocek in Totonicapan, Guatemala

Julian, we are so honored to be able to present the premiere of your film! Can you tell us what it is about?

Los 48 Cantones is a 27-minute documentary film that explores an indigenous forest management system that pre-dates the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The governing body is comprised of 48 self-governed “cantons,” run by elected representatives from each canton—a vibrant and dynamic system that the Maya K’iche of Totonicapán have developed to govern their communities over the course of 800 years. To this day, this system protects 21,000 hectares of Guatemala’s “sacred” old-growth forest and the abundant fresh water sources it provides. It’s amazing to think that the forest harbors 1,200 sources of water that at least 150,000 people rely upon. In the film, you will hear members of the community express their concern and struggles about maintaining their ancestral way of life and their natural resources as they combat pressures from an increasingly globalized world. The communities have been remarkably willing to accept outside support, such as EcoLogic’s work with the nurseries, when it honors their efforts to conserve their traditions and environment.

When did you first visit Totonicapán?

My first visit was in 2012. My guide was EcoLogic’s Project Technician for the 48 Cantones, Fernando Recancoj. To support the reforestation of degraded areas of the Totonicapán forest, EcoLogic built eight nurseries that produce more than 100,000 seedlings a year. They grow under the devoted care of Don Agustín, a wise and mystical K’iche elder. He also took us into the forest and shared his contagious enthusiasm and love of nature. Inspired by the beauty of this forest with its towering pines adorned by bromeliads and a soft blanket of needles underfoot, I knew I wanted to make a film.

What specific issues did you want to explore in the film?

First, we were interested in understanding how the 48 Cantones were organized. The centuries-old 48 Cantones is an indigenous government of the Maya K’iche with its own elected leaders (called the Junta Directiva) that effectively runs in parallel to the local municipal government. Although it’s not recognized by the state as a legal governing body, as far as the local population is concerned, there is no question of which government is “legitimate.”

Second, we explored the very different attitude towards the environment held by the Maya K’iche. In Totonicapán, the Maya K’iche communities are the stewards of the forest and they make the decisions that affect its well-being. Furthermore, there is the concept of “K’ax K’ol,” or community service, such as we documented in the film: both members of the community and the government participate in a compulsory service initiative to care for the forest. K’ax K’ol is one year of unpaid voluntary service, sometimes occurring several times during a person’s lifetime.

What types of threats face the forest and the Maya K’iche community in Totonicapán?

The film’s focus is on the forest guardians and it is intentionally apolitical. It doesn’t present any of the divisive factions within the community nor the brutal clashes between indigenous groups and the government. Many socio-political conflicts exist, both within the community and the country.

In the film, people do address the most insidious threat—the cultural creep of outside values that demand participation in a cash economy and technology. The population is more educated, there are different values, different understandings of the world that are clashing. People must decide whose understanding of the world to accept: our grandparents’ or the TV’s? The current situation is a wild mix of traditional and contemporary cultures. Members of the Junta Directiva are expected to have university degrees, and hold more power from the involvement of international NGOs and the funding they bring.

Many community members leave their families to go to the US (sometimes repeatedly) in order to earn money to support their families. The experience in the US is often harsh, and they return home. While most say they prefer life in Guatemala, they can’t make ends meet. The escalating need for more cash, along with factors such as legal and illegal logging and the intrusion of pharmaceutical companies, is fraying the fabric of the communities and the environment. Los 48 Cantones reflects the pressures on the Maya K’iche to be participants in the unrelenting march of Western development, while trying to preserve their dynamic traditional and cohesive cultural norms.

Julian will join EcoLogic on June 5th, 2014 to present the premiere of his film, Los 48 Cantones. Learn more about the event and purchase your tickets online here!

Watch a trailer of Julian’s documentary, Los 48 Cantones:

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