A learned opinion about Apocalypto

Discussion in 'Movie Lounge' started by DYohn, Jun 13, 2007.

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  1. DYohn

    DYohn Well-Known Member Donor

    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.
     
  2. Jack

    Jack Well-Known Member Donor War Zone Member Top Poster

    David
    Thank You for Your insight.
    Personally and Thankfully, I did not take the same feeling away from the theater. As someone who knows little of Indian, Mayan Cultures, all I took away was that these were a beautiful, happy people that enjoyed there lived far more than most of us.
    Greed, in the form of the wealthy stepped in and brought paradise to an end for many of the local and not so local peoples. I believe that greed, in the form of heartless rulers, is to be found in every culture. The torture and life ruining attributes of the film were the result of a small faction of evil disgusting putrefied persons of unknown origin that killed off the life and times of the loving and gentle people.
    Just my take, please take no offense.
     
  3. Karl Englebright

    Karl Englebright New Member

    I have to agree with Jack here. I trully understand the concerns that have been raised here about stereotypes. I just don't think this movie portrays Mayans in the light this person has presented. In the other thread, I explain in detail why I didn't feel that way after watching this movie.
     
  4. CJ

    CJ Well-Known Member Admin War Zone Member

    Top Poster Of Month

    I can't remember if I pointed this out in PM or in the other thread but no group, minority or otherwise is accurately and fairly depicted, without stereotype, in film. That includes heterosexual white males. Stereotyping is a literary device, its used all the time. That doesn't make it forgivable but I think its important to realize that people outside the group being stereotyped are not going react in the same way as those who are inside the group.
     
  5. LarryB

    LarryB Active Member

    David:

    Thank you for that insightful and well-written article, which helped crystallize my own feeling about the film.

    Negative stereoptyping is endemic in Hollywood, so much so that many become desensitized to it. Of course, it stand to reason that those who have not been subjected to extreme prejudice, or whose ancestors were not, will be less lively to react to the negative steroptyping.

    If I may be allowed a moment of sarcasm, perhaps Gibson's next movie will be Apacolypto II, a film describing in vivid detail the brutal murder, subjugation and forced conversion of native Central- and South-Americans, by Christian Europeans. Alas, I will grow a full head of hair before that happens.

    LB
     
  6. Jack

    Jack Well-Known Member Donor War Zone Member Top Poster

    You know Larry your point is well taken.
    I am not a minority, well as defined, and so I have not experienced any real prejudices. And that may have tainted my view of the film.
    I agree with your last paragraph entirely, but I took that away from the movie. It was quite clear that the Mayans did not in any way represent evil. The evil was brought in from the outside world and forced upon the native population.
    Being that I have not been subjugated by these problems, maybe I am overlooking something obvious. Never the less, I left the theater thinking the Mayans were a happy peaceful people that were destroyed, in part because of their peaceful, non barbaric existence. I thought more of the locals of that area than I ever did before the film. It actually caused Mary and I to buy tickets to Cancun to visit the ruins wherein the film takes place and visit the local people. It was funny to hear the local populace discussing the adjacent Mexican people. "We do not identify with those people" one local said. I do not claim to understand the politics inherent there, but it is obvious that the local tribes people were proud, content and did not ask for this demise.
     
  7. Karl Englebright

    Karl Englebright New Member

    Question:

    How do you negatively stereotype people that lived 500 years ago? Do you do that by portraying them as wearing little clothing? Living in the jungle? Hunting? Fighting with other tribes? Performing ritual human sacrifice?
     
  8. Karl Englebright

    Karl Englebright New Member

    Actually, I am a minority (though my name might not indicate it). I am Puerto Rican. I have both Hispanic and native (Taino) blood in me. Although I also have German blood. I AM sensitive to stereotypes. And this is precisely why I am asking the questions about this movie. I am sensitive and I saw a completely different take on this than the critics are claiming.
     
  9. LarryB

    LarryB Active Member

    We are all individuals, and have our own reactions. I respect each and every opinion expressed here.
     
  10. DYohn

    DYohn Well-Known Member Donor

    Karl, the damage is that the images help shape stereotypical opinions about the decendants of those - and other Native - people alive today.
     
  11. Shane

    Shane Active Member

    It wasn't. The only reason it was even discussed on TV as a controversy was because of Mel's personal issues.

    I wonder why the Indians here in Oklahoma who attended the movie's premiere at an Indian Casino no less and loved it didn't protest to the stereotypes? Makes you think.
     
  12. CJ

    CJ Well-Known Member Admin War Zone Member

    Top Poster Of Month

    Shane, I often think about that but the bottom line is, if I have one black friend that doesn't care if I say the N word does that mean its OK? What if I have 3, or 10 or 50 friends? On the flip side if ONE person is offended then it might just be that one person but you can't take a group of people supporting something means its not offensive. There are always native groups supporting the continued use of Native American images as mascots. That doesn't make the use less offensive, it just means you happened to find a group that isn't offended.
     
  13. Karl Englebright

    Karl Englebright New Member

    I guess I don't see how that happens with a movie depicting a civilization 500 years ago. Sure, there will always be ignorant people that can use anything to perpetuate their stereotypes of peoples different from them. But is that the norm? Will the typical theater-going audience gather that current day Mayan decendents are loin-clothed, human sacrificing savages, from this movie? I don't see how a typical individual can make that leap from this movie. Had they received a cursory, shallow treatment, with only a depiction of the negative aspects of this culture on top of massive historical misrepresentations, then I would agree. But that is not the case here.

    If you talk about native north americans, I would concede the point because of the shear volume of movies with shallow and cursory portrayals. After all, there is an entire genre of these types of films that for the most part have done just that.

    Again, not in this case though.
     
  14. DYohn

    DYohn Well-Known Member Donor

    Which points to one reason why I remain an activist. The mainstream media are more fascinated with the racist anti-Semitic remarks he made than they are interested in looking at and considering anti-Native imagery he uses.

    Thank you CJ for answering this one. I will add that a lot of Natives I know felt the same way, usually adding "That movie was about Mayans, not us." Racial identity among Native peoples is a very complex issue. For example, there are over 500 tribes, over 500 languages, over 500 different cultures and religions, and many of them have very racist negative feelings about the others. There is and never will be anything like a pan-Indian "Native American" culture. Hell, my father's tribe (Ojibwe) traditionally believes that my mother's tribe (Sac/Fox) are sub-humans. The reaction of the Rez Indians in OK is not at all surprising. Most of them would think that mixed blood radicals like myself are simply trouble makers anyway. :)
     
  15. Tyson

    Tyson New Member

    Should this post be in another section of the forum? Just wondering. Seems to be going the direction of a political post.
     
  16. LarryB

    LarryB Active Member

    David:

    Failure to distinguish between different native tribes is another form of stereotyping, albeit one borne of ignorance, not malice.

    Larry
     
  17. DYohn

    DYohn Well-Known Member Donor

    Karl, you are of course entitled to your opinions. My position is that negative portrayals of Native Americans, whether they are Mayan or Lakota or Navajo or Taino, damages the overall image of all the rest of us by reinforcing negative stereotypes. Most non-Native people do not really understand tribal differences anyway. Hell, some Natives don't. :)
     
  18. Tyson

    Tyson New Member

    Well I for one read what you said and agreed. :)
     
  19. Karl Englebright

    Karl Englebright New Member

    I see your point and agree. However, I guess where I disagree is that this was a negative portrayal. I saw it as a "neutral" portrayal of human nature. Neutral in the sense that both good and bad qualities were exposed. When it comes down to it, had I perceived this particular movie as the typical hollywood negative portrayal/stereotyping, I would have been just as vocal in agreeing with you. I just didn't see it here. On the contrary, I saw greed, violence, and people's propensity to see others as less than them (part of human nature), as the "baddies" of this film.
     
  20. Jack

    Jack Well-Known Member Donor War Zone Member Top Poster

    I have learned a great deal from these posts. I would never have guessed such problems exist.
    I am sorry.
     
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