Thursday, December 14, 2006

Apocalypto Aside from "Accuracy"

I have been following some of the commentaries about Apocalypto posted by academics on H-LATAM, and there are two in particular that I wish to highlight below. One is by Quetzil E. Castañeda, an anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker (see his co-production with Jeffrey Himpele, Incidents of Travel in Chichen Itza). Castañeda goes beyond howling against issues of historical accuracy to look more closely at how academics themselves likely contributed to the shaping and informing of Apocalypto. The second is Kathryn Lehman in New Zealand, who returns our attention to broader issues and reminds us of how cannibalism played a role in depicting natives in the recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie (the latter film received virtually no attention at all on these same academic lists). Their messages follow below.

A third commentator, whose message I neglected to save, raised some very interesting points about how film critics have handled this film by Mel Gibson. Most reviews have focused more on how this film fits in with Gibson's career as a filmmaker, and try to place it within an overall genealogy of his evolution as a filmmaker. Some have tried to situate the film within the present, as a commentary not about the Mayas, but about the fall of Western civilization, and even as a subtle (perhaps too subtle) critique of dominant potentates such as George W. Bush. Those who were disturbed by the film were most disturbed by its unending violence more than anything else. Most do not comment on the issue of historical accuracy, but simply note the use of an indigenous language.

This comment is in response to the query about the seeming lack of reactions by scholars to Apocalypto. As evidence from the flood of emails on the H-net, it is likely that the lack of reactions is a function of where you are plugged into the internet and list serves.

Many anthropologists and archaeologists are very concerned to respond in public to the Gibson film. Not all of these responses are good -- in terms of analysis -- although all are pretty uniformly negative in their assessment.

While various scholars are (correctly) blasting the historical inaccuracies and the politics of representation of the film, I am very troubled by some things that have remained unsaid. To be sure, the film only has to do with the Maya to the extent that Gibson and the media assert that it does. Even the language is hardly Maya! As a speaker of Yucatec Maya my suspicion that the Maya used in the film was not all very well spoken or correct was confirmed by Francisco May, the grandson of the leader of the Cruzob Maya who established a politically independent state in Yucatan from 1850s-to 1902.

Last night on Fox News Gibson was given the chance to shoo-shoo his critics. He repeatedly cited archaeologists and anthropologists as his source of knowledge about the Maya. Indeed, he did reiterate the analogy of the Maya are Greeks (he called them Grecian) and the Aztecs are Romans; this trope derives from the Sylvanus G. Morley-Sir Eric S Thompson era of Maya Studies (1930-50s). He all but named one of the archaeologists or epigraphers that "broke the Maya code" as an important advisors. Who was it? He noted that he visited an archaeological site, El Mirador in Guatemala and was given a tour by the lead archaeologist there. He also hired various academic consultants for various things. Now, my concern is with the relationship between these scholars, the knowledge/information they gave Gibson, and Gibson's understanding of this information.

The shrill critique of inaccuracies and the horrifying representation of the Maya is quite disturbing, but I am afraid that it will only cover up much more important issues about the scholarly advising and the way in which what we do is already implicated and deeply intertwined with these representations, ethics and politics that we so like to publicly deplore. After all, that Gibson can claim that he is simply an "artist" is ultimately less his excuse than our failure to take responsibility. I would like to know who were the consultants. Why were these not listed on the credits? What did they say? What was Gibson's responses? Consider that the US NSF is cited for thanks in the credits.

Why is the National Science Foundation thanked for its support of Gibson's film? What support was given? Who or what unit within the NSF gave this consultancy? At what price? If this was not a pro bono advising, where is that money now going in the NSF budget?

The issue is not about pointing fingers at certain scholars or federal agencies for collaborating with the devil, for feeding Gibson controversial personal interpretations that are heavily disputed by a large number of other scholars, or for not being able to penetrate and decimate Gibson's pre-formed conceptions (of the Maya, Jews, etc.). The problem is to understand the role and relationship of academia, scholarship even the university to public debates. I think we need to take certain responsibility. There is something much more disturbing about Gibson's film.

Quetzil E. Castañeda, Ph.D.
Founding Director, OSEA
Visiting Professor, Spring 2006-Spring 2007
Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Indiana University

Every time the subject emerges about using film to teach history, I send along a reminder that films tell us more about the history of the moment of production than they do about the historical setting. The Mission tells us more about 1980s debates over Liberation Theology than about the expulsion of the Jesuits from Guarani territory in the 18th century.

This is not a question of historical accuracy, all films are historically inaccurate. What we should ask students is why now? What is happening to Maya and indigenous people today that prompts someone to represent them in this way? And most importantly: who benefits by this representation?

Films like this are hardly innocent and the problem is not one of accuracy. They emerge at specific moments for very specific reasons and they benefit some at the expense of others.

If we can dehumanise historical indigenous peoples with the outrageous claim that the vicious repression of colonisation was somehow a civilisiong mission, (with the inevitable introduction of what Stephen Turner calles the "cannibal moment"), then it won't be difficult to convince them that contemporary struggles over indigenous land, resources, artifacts, genetic agricultural strains, human genetic codes, cultural intellectual property and HUMAN RIGHTS are perfectly acceptable in a world in which wealthy people require cheap petroleum and other mineral resources located on indigenous lands.

We've been here before. We knew that a new wave of this kind of films was coming the moment Johnny Depp was surrounded by cannibals. Here we go again.

These representations are not timeless or based on some problems of accuracy. They are historical because they are ideologically driven at a moment in time, and Gibson's racist comments are perfectly in keeping with this kind of representation.

So if you show this film, give students the basic facts about indigenous peoples TODAY and ask students who benefits from this representation TODAY?

Dr. Kathryn Lehman
Department of Spanish and
New Zealand Centre for Latin American Studies
The University of Auckland
Private Bag 92019
Auckland, New Zealand

1 comment:

Me said... the end..was it real or come that in school we never knew that?...Are the movie events something they imagined? Is it a good idea to show it to kids?