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Guatemala civil war film vies for Belgian 'Oscar'

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Brussels (AFP)

In Belgium's version of the Oscars this weekend, a film about Guatemala's civil war is an unusual nominee -- telling a story set more than two decades ago and 9,000 kilometres (5,000 miles) away.

But, explained director Cesar Diaz, "the distance is essential" to his movie, "Our Mothers" ("Nuestras Madres"), which already picked up a Camera d'Or prize in Cannes last year for best first feature.

It is running in six categories in the Magritte awards which are handed out on Saturday in Brussels, including best movie, best director and best screenplay.

"If I had made the same movie while living in Guatemala, I think it would have been a much more dogmatic film, much less human," Diaz explained to AFP.

The 42-year-old was born in Guatemala but as a boy he left the grandmother and uncle raising him for Mexico to join his mother who went years before the civil war. Of his father, a "political missing person", he has no memories.

In Mexico, Latin America's movie-making powerhouse, Diaz's passion for film took hold. But after failing to get into Cuba's School of Cinema, he landed in Belgium in 1999 to join an uncle living there.

It was meant to be a short stay, but -- apart from a 2009 detour to France to study screenwriting -- it became his home, and his second nationality.

The phantoms of the conflict that haunt his birth country have never left him, however. His memories of soldiers in the streets and former dictator Efrain Rios Montt on the television stayed with him.

"It marked my life," he said.

He has, he explained, tried to "exorcise" those ghosts by putting them in creations mixed with a search for family and for history.

- A 'message' to nationalists today -

The path to his feature movie passed by a 2010 short on an early episode in the civil war called "Semillas de Ceniza", or "seeds of ash".

In 2015 he brought out a documentary with his mother that recalled the scope and savagery of the conflict, a war between the government and leftist guerrillas, which cost 200,000 lives.

All of that -- his migration, his obsession with Guatemala's bloody recent past, European filmmaking sensibilities -- led to "Our Mothers", which Diaz calls the "culminative point" of his career so far.

A fictional feature, it delves into the search of those "disappeared" under Guatemala's government and the massacre of native Mayan communities suspected of being guerrilla sympathisers.

Diaz said he believed the recognition his movie has achieved was a wake-up call to populists in Belgium or elsewhere employing anti-immigrant rhetoric.

"It's a message to all those in Europe's nationalist wave," Diaz said, a declaration from "citizens like me, who maybe weren't born in this country, that we form part of it... without forgetting who we are".

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