Dear Friends: As you may know, Mel Gibson's new film is opening Dec 8th. I think it will be as controversial as was his Passion of Christ, although for different reasons. Gabriela Erandi Rico, one of our outstanding doctoral candidates, joined me in previewing the film at a special screening and we wrote the following critique. I can't understand why a respected Chicano actor like James Edward Olmos considers the movie one of the best he's seen in his life! Or why a Mexican American Business organization gave Gibson an award for making them feel proud to be Mexican. Finally, Gibson would have made a couple of points with me if instead of giving a million dollars to Fox (perhaps to spend on his possible forthcoming exile from Mexico), he would have given the money to the Maya people who would have put it to better use. Peace, Dr. Carlos Munoz, Jr. Professor Emeritus Department of Ethnic Studies 510-642-9134 FAX 510-642-6456 http://ethnicstudies.berkeley.edu/faculty/munoz/ Gibson's Film is far from a Tribute to the Maya During the past week or so, tickets were distributed to U.C. Berkeley's students in order to attract Mexican-Americans to view Mel Gibson's new film, "Apocalypto." When I first heard about the film, I was struck by Gibson's investment in a project "reviving" an ancient Mesoamerican civilization not only because as a Mexican Indian (P'urhepecha/matlatzinca), I have great respect for the Maya but also because I've been fortunate to visit Catemaco, the wondrous place where the film was shot, I was also interested in how the site was used to capture the plot of the film. Curiosity got the best of me and although I was a bit apprehensive about Gibson's ability to accurately portray a Native American society or to present Native people in a positive light, I went to the showing, afraid I might see a travesty. I was right. I came out of the theater with mixed feelings - mostly awe, disgust, rage and indignity. Although I admit that I was visually awe-struck by the beautiful aesthetic reconstruction of Maya architecture and by sitting through a film mostly cast by Native American actors and listening to dialogue completely in the Maya Yucatec language, there were many elements of the movie I found deeply offensive. The central aspect of the film was undoubtedly violence. While I understand that violence is necessary to keep the plot moving along in an action film and while I can even entertain the notion that shock value is a gripping method effective in capturing the audience's attention, I thought the use of violence in this film was grossly sensationalized, sometimes inaccurate and often unnecessary. The scenes that most stand out in my mind were those of unjust bloody battles, outright violent murder (including of women and children) with heavy and sharp weapons, and of course, mass human sacrifice. While I can see how human sacrifice can be a good attention-grabber for an adrenaline-hungry audience, I thought Gibson made his point after we saw one head falling from the steps of the central Mayan pyramid and that it was not necessary to have to sit through several scenes of sharp obsidian blades plunging into human flesh to extract pulsating hearts followed by fierce decapitations of sacrificial victims all-while onlookers of the Mayan king's loyal subjects cheered and demanded more. The killers were portrayed as sadistic and bloodthirsty while the victims were other frightened, na?ve (and apparently weaker) Indians. This nonstop violent carnage throughout the movie combined with the highlighting of human sacrifice portrayed the Mayas as bloodthirsty savages. While the stereotype is a painfully familiar one for Native people, I find it quite ironic that Gibson thought we would be somehow flattered at his interest in reconstructing our past "reality" or that we would find it at all glorifying. While sacrifice was, indeed, an important part of Aztec and Maya spirituality, many of the accounts given by Spanish soldiers and priests have been widely contested because of the bias coming from the source (conquistadores and Christian converters). The depictions in Maya and Aztec codices indicate that various forms of sacrifice were practiced and that they were, indeed, violent-but archeologists have been unable to find the mass numbers Spanish accounts claimed-proving that their alleged "eyewitness reports" (like Gibson's representation) were gross exaggerations. Furthermore, it's widely acknowledged by scholars who study the art of warfare that Mesoamerican societies like the Mayas and the Aztecs followed a strict set of rules of war. Their warrior societies did set out to find captives, yet the honor of the warrior was experienced in confronting another warrior on an individual basis and having him submit to his strength and valor-not, as Gibson portrays, in raiding villages or burning houses and definitely not in killing/raping women or disposing of children. Such cowardly acts would bring shame and dishonor to aspiring warriors. The truth (one acknowledged in interviews by Gibson) is that the Mayas were one of the greatest civilizations of the world. They were highly advanced in astronomy, architecture, the arts and mathematics. They gave the world the concept of zero, came up with the most advanced writing system in the Western Hemisphere and designed a calendar far more accurate than the Gregorian one we live by today. Out of all these aspects of Maya society, Gibson chose to highlight human sacrifice. This is far from paying tribute to the Mayas for their contributions. I understand that Gibson's intent was to make a fast-moving action film; however, if carnage was what he wanted, why not focus on the extreme performance of human violence illustrated by the mass genocide of Mayas during the Spanish Conquest? Or perhaps, the systematic contemporary genocide Mayas continue to suffer well into the 21st Century during the Central American civil wars at the hands of various governments? It's ironic (yet not surprising) that one of the greatest civilizations is reduced to their violent practices while they themselves have been the worse casualties of ongoing violent warfare at the hands of European colonizers, their descendants and their imposed governments. I realize, however, that no one cares about the plights of contemporary Mayas; it's much sexier in Hollywood to continue killing the dead ones. In Gibson's film, for example, their racialized bodies are portrayed as disposable and to make matters worse, they are blamed for their own conquest. The film opens with a quote by W. Durant, "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within" somehow suggesting that the divisions and warfare a decadent Maya society was wreaking upon itself were what essentially led to its downfall. This quote makes sense at the end of the film, when Jaguar Paw's run ends at his and his persecutors' surprise upon witnessing the arrival of European ships. The Spanish conquistadores (who were historically savagely violent in their own regard) are presented as mere bystanders to Jaguar Paw's persecution; religious symbols such as crosses and bibles in the hands of friars indicate that the Spanish have arrived to Christianize the heathens in order to save them from the savagery they inflict on each other. The quote on the film's billboards, "No one can outrun their destiny," can thus be read as the tragic truth that Jaguar Paw's exhaustingly heroic escape back to this home in the jungle is really in vain because he will still face destiny at the hands of the newly-arrived Spanish colonizers (and he will thus probably be killed or have to keep running). Such is the epic story of our tragic hero- destined to be extinguished either by his evil pursuers bent on cutting his heart from his body or by the annals of history and the arrival of modernity. Not quite a flattering portrayal for Maya/Native people. During a time when the portrayals of Native Americans in mainstream media are scarce, all representations of Native people make a statement. This is what's scary about continuing to see films like Apocalypto being undertaken by directors like Gibson. Indigenous scholars like Vine Deloria and Shari Huhndorf have theorized why as a population, which has been continuously preyed upon, dispossessed and colonized, Native Americans are particularly vulnerable to appropriation and commoditization. Indian cultures continue being capitalized upon and Indians continue being disposable, exotic (and in this case violent) others. The only good thing Apocalypto did for Native people was to leave money in indigenous communities in Mexico, expose audiences to the Maya Yucatec language (thus enlightening them), and of course, give jobs and jumpstart careers for a few indigenous actors. Otherwise, it's just another example of a white man's gaze following and misrepresenting Indians.