Fwd: RE: New Gibson movie in Mayan, with subtitles

Kephart, Ronald rkephart at unf.edu
Wed Dec 6 17:39:56 UTC 2006

 From the Anthro-L list: a review by an anthropologist familiar with 
the Maya. Read, then weep... -Ron

Is "Apocalypto" Pornography?

December 5, 2006

by Traci Ardren, assistant professor of anthropology at the 
University of Miami.

A scholar challenges Mel Gibson's use of the ancient Maya culture as 
a metaphor for his vision of today's world.

Traci Ardren, an assistant professor of anthropology at the 
University of Miami, knows the Maya well. She has studied Classic 
Maya society for over 20 years while living in the modern Maya 
villages of Yaxuna, Chunchucmil, and Espita in the Mexican state of 
Yucatan. Her credentials include contributing to and editing Ancient 
Maya Women (2002) and The Social Experience of Childhood in Ancient 
Mesoamerica (2006). Ardren's reaction to the new film " Apocalypto," 
follows. Scholars are well aware that some aspects of Maya culture 
were violent, but Ardren finds fault with what she sees as a 
pervasive colonial attitude in the film.

With great trepidation I went to an advance screening of "Apocalypto" 
last night in Miami. No one really expects historical dramas to be 
accurate, so I was not so much concerned with whether or not the film 
would accurately represent what we know of Classic period Maya 
history as I was concerned about the message Mel Gibson wanted to 
convey through the film. After Jared Diamond's best-selling book 
Collapse, it has become fashionable to use the so-called Maya 
collapse as a metaphor for Western society's environmental and 
political excesses. Setting aside the fact that the Maya lived for 
more than a thousand years in a fragile tropical environment before 
their cities were abandoned, while here in the U.S, we have polluted 
our urban environments in less than 200, I anticipated a heavy-handed 
cautionary tale wrapped up in Native American costume.

What I saw was much worse than this. The thrill of hearing melodic 
Yucatec Maya spoken by familiar faces (although the five lead actors 
are not Yucatec Maya but other talented Native American actors) 
during the first ten minutes of the movie is swiftly and brutally 
replaced with stomach churning panic at the graphic Maya-on-Maya 
violence depicted in a village raid scene of nearly 15 minutes. From 
then on the entire movie never ceases to utilize every possible 
excuse to depict more violence. It is unrelenting. Our hero, Jaguar 
Paw, played by the charismatic Cree actor Rudy Youngblood, has one 
hellavuh bad couple of days. Captured for sacrifice, forced to march 
to the putrid city nearby, he endures every tropical jungle attack 
conceivable and that is after he escapes the relentless brutality of 
the elites. I am told this part of the movie is completely derivative 
of the 1966 film "The Naked Prey." Pure action flick, with one 
ridiculous encounter after another, filmed beautifully in the way 
that only Hollywood blockbusters can afford, this is the part of the 
movie that will draw in audiences and demonstrates Gibson's skill as 
a cinematic storyteller.

But I find the visual appeal of the film one of the most disturbing 
aspects of "Apocalypto." The jungles of Veracruz and Costa Rica have 
never looked better, the masked priests on the temple jump right off 
a Classic Maya vase, and the people are gorgeous. The fact that this 
film was made in Mexico and filmed in the Yucatec Maya language 
coupled with its visual appeal makes it all the more dangerous. It 
looks authentic; viewers will be captivated by the crazy, exotic mess 
of the city and the howler monkeys in the jungle. And who really 
cares that the Maya were not living in cities when the Spanish 
arrived? Yes, Gibson includes the arrival of clearly Christian 
missionaries (these guys are too clean to be conquistadors) in the 
last five minutes of the story (in the real world the Spanish arrived 
300 years after the last Maya city was abandoned). It is one of the 
few calm moments in an otherwise aggressively paced film. The 
message? The end is near and the savior has come. Gibson's efforts at 
authenticity of location and language might, for some viewers, mask 
his blatantly colonial message that the Maya needed saving because 
they were rotten at the core. Using the decline of Classic urbanism 
as his backdrop, Gibson communicates that there was absolutely 
nothing redeemable about Maya culture, especially elite culture which 
is depicted as a disgusting feast of blood and excess.

Before anyone thinks I have forgotten my Metamusel this morning, I am 
not a compulsively politically correct type who sees the Maya as the 
epitome of goodness and light. I know the Maya practiced brutal 
violence upon one another, and I have studied child sacrifice during 
the Classic period. But in "Apocalypto," no mention is made of the 
achievements in science and art, the profound spirituality and 
connection to agricultural cycles, or the engineering feats of Maya 
cities. Instead, Gibson replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, 
an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one 
another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserve, 
in fact they needed, rescue. This same idea was used for 500 years to 
justify the subjugation of Maya people and it has been thoroughly 
deconstructed and rejected by Maya intellectuals and community 
leaders throughout the Maya area today. In fact, Maya intellectuals 
have demonstrated convincingly that such ideas were manipulated by 
the Guatemalan army to justify the genocidal civil war of the 
1970-1990s. To see this same trope about who indigenous people were 
(and are today?) used as the basis for entertainment (and I use the 
term loosely) is truly embarrassing. How can we continue to produce 
such one-sided and clearly exploitative messages about the indigenous 
people of the New World?

I loved Gibson's film "Braveheart," I really did. But there is 
something very different about portraying a group of people, who are 
now recovering from 500 years of colonization, as violent and brutal. 
These are people who are living with the very real effects of 
persistent racism that at its heart sees them as less than human. To 
think that a movie about the 1,000 ways a Maya can kill a Maya--when 
only 10 years ago Maya people were systematically being exterminated 
in Guatemala just for being Maya--is in any way okay, entertaining, 
or helpful is the epitome of a Western fantasy of supremacy that I 
find sad and ultimately pornographic. It is surely no surprise that 
"Apolcalypto" has very little to do with Maya culture and instead is 
Gibson's comment on the excesses he perceives in modern Western 
society. I just wish he had been honest enough to say this. Instead 
he has created a beautiful and disturbing portrait that satisfies his 
need for comment but does violence to one of the most impressive of 
Native American cultures.
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