Friday, December 29, 2006

A real Yukatek Maya perspective on the movie Apocalypto

I especially liked his ending sentence:

"Perhaps Gibson could make a movie showing how the Mayas still are suffering discrimination, even to the point of being cheated out of our lands and displaced, because of the ships he showed arriving as the finale of 'Apocalypto.'"

Not to mention his remarks on the Yukatek language as spoken by non-Maya actors!

Who were the Maya?

Not the people in 'Apocalypto'

Staff Writer

The Mayas were savages and needed to be straightened out.

That is the message Mel Gibson's movie "Apocalypto" conveyed to me when it contrasted savage bloodthirsty pagans meeting with arriving Europeans carrying the symbol of the cross.
But we are not savages.

Spanish invaders who arrived among the Maya in the 16th century depicted natives as barbaric people dedicated to devil worship in order to justify brutality and conquest. We all know native peoples didn't fare well under Christianity; some cultures were completely lost. Coincidentally, Christianity is the foundation of Gibson's belief and spirituality.

But a more serious massacre -- that of the Yukatek language -- begins early in the movie. The non-Maya actors of North American Indian heritage pronouncing their rehearsed Yukatek lines sounded like Hollywood Western stereotypes saying: "How! Me Tonto, this Painted Horse."
Although I was born a Yukatek Maya and raised in a Yukatek village, speaking Yukatek as the first of four languages I know, I had to glance at the subtitles to figure out what the actors were trying to say.

It was slightly refreshing that Gibson cast an elder, a storyteller, who spoke the language without pauses, with such musical flow and accuracy that for a moment I thought I was in my village listening to my own elders. But, sad to say, the only other significant part in the movie where the power of the Yukatek language was genuinely demonstrated is when the tiny village girl talks about the prophecy of the jaguar ending the evil and vile ways of the devil people.

The film is full of violence, floods of blood, throat-slitting, beheadings, heads rolling down the steps of temples and hearts being wrenched out of gaping holes in upper abdomens.

I had to turn to my friend, Robert Sitler, a Latin American studies professor at Stetson University, to ask for his reaction.

"Sadly, 'Apocalypto' will leave mainstream American moviegoers seeing Maya as heartless savages," Sitler said after the movie. He said the movie "unwittingly reinforces a long-standing tradition of virulent racism against the Maya among white Europeans and their Spanish-speaking descendents."

The film falls short of Gibson's intention -- which, remotely, appears to be telling the story of Jaguar Paw, the hero played by Rudy Youngblood, and the prophecy of his rise to power. The film fails for two reasons.

First, Gibson bogs down the plot with his craze for blood and death. Second, just as Jaguar Paw appears to be achieving success, he runs into ships anchored in the bay with boats rowing ashore carrying grim-faced conquistadors bearing the symbols of the cross.

I am not certain which Jaguar Paw Gibson tried to portray in his movie. There were several famous Jaguar Paws in Maya hieroglyphics, including one who became king of the great Maya city of Calakmul in 686 and was long gone when the Spaniards arrived 806 years later. There were no glorious Maya cities, simply small communities scattered throughout the Maya world.
And Mr. Gibson, that world is not only Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras, as you defined it in promoting your movie. It also includes what is now Belize and El Salvador.

Unlike the sadistic and violent caricatures of Maya in "Apocalypto," real Maya intensely nurture their children and honor both their elders and ancestors, embracing human mortality in the context of a cultural heritage going back more than a hundred generations.

My only hope is that moviegoers would take the movie as a misleading and distorted Hollywood drama designed to entertain.

Perhaps Gibson could make a movie showing how the Mayas still are suffering discrimination, even to the point of being cheated out of our lands and displaced, because of the ships he showed arriving as the finale of "Apocalypto."


Montag said...

Until I saw Apocalypto, I did not like films directed by Mel Gibson.
However, Apocalypto was something very different.

The title Apocalypto implies a final ending, not a straightening out. It does not mean the Spanish fixed up the Maya; it means the Maya were destroyed.
And the destruction was from the inside, not the outside.

I find the discussion of Christianity to be totally wrong.

Surely, Mr. Gibson's use of the Durant quote that empires rot from within indicates he was aware that this applies to ALL empires, not just the Maya.
It applies to Mayan and Christian cultures. (Unless we believe Mr. Gibson, as an artist, can not see such subtleties.)

If there is a criticism of classic Mayan culture, it is obviously the bloody vision of God that took over the culture. The nature of this religion is witnessed by Mayan paintings.
Mr. Gibson points out - using images- that the classic Maya believed in their religion with the exact same fervor we believe in ours. Yet, how different it all is when seen from a distance of years!

The violence is present, but it is not what we have come to call 'gratuitous'.
The theme requires violent images. They are there and they do their job.
The chase portion of the film has its violence, but these are standards in the repetoire of chases.
There is no surfeit of violence, just enough to make the point and fill out the chase.

I shall not go back and view his previous films, for I have seen them and I do not like them.
This film, however, is almost a masterpiece.

Dave said...

Interesting perspective on the movie. And, I agree, cultures and civilizations can rot from within and I think history is replete with such cyclical comings and goings of cultures and civilizations. Our own culture and civilization is not exempt from this of course, and it's natural to think, given the tendencies of the U.S. government over the last several years, to suspect that our own may well be on the decline.

I do find it fascinating that the ancient Mayan culture shows such a dichotomy: a culture and civilization that was so advanced in so many ways (discovering the concept of 0 even before the Greeks) and yet they practiced such rituals as human sacrifice and bloodletting (such as through cutting the penis, OUCH). Yet, there is evidence that human sacrifice was considered an honor by those who were sacrificed. Such a perspective seems unthinkable to us in modern times, yet there it was. Belief systems do change over time, so it is not really appropriate for us today to judge what prior cultures and civilizations thought of as acceptable.

I only wish someone would do a movie about the rise of the Mayan civilization emphasizing the many aspects of greatness they achieved. But then I guess that wouldn't be interesting enough to keep the interest of the movie-viewing public!

jessica said...

You should check out this video, it's no apocalypto. It's really historical and pretty interesting. Check it out :

Montag said...

There is indeed evidenece that some of those sacrificed considered it an honor.

There is also evidence that many consider it honorable today to sacrifice lives in various causes.

(Note that we all consider it honorable to die for the nation state, and it is not "unthinkable" at all.It does not require much imagination to feel the patriotic and religious fervor of the Mayans. I think Mr. Gibson was trying to draw a parallel to the modern day, but he had the sense to be subtle.)

Regardless of the honor, violence is still a path that takes too many lives, too much wealth, and rewards the brutal too much.

I shall not even think of what we could have used that Iraq $100 billion for! Nor what the Iraqi dead could have contributed to their country!

{addendum: I like your idea of the Mayan film at a different time.
With the right story, it would be successful.
I think that if we use the Lords of Xibalba....
I think it would work.}

Anonymous said...

very well written patricio...