UCSB’s Maya Expert Anabel Ford Digests Mel Gibson’s New

By Anabel Ford

On a need-to-know basis as a Maya archaeologist, apocalypto1.jpgI joined the full theater-opening
weekend in Santa Barbara of Apocalypto, directed by
Mel Gibson. What I
found was a display of Hollywood action with gratuitous violence,
just what all the reviews had either lauded or warned. The plot
theme was simple: the classic hero, the evil villain, and the
damsel in distress, but with a macabre conjurings set against a
backdrop that purports to be of the Maya world. And here the
imagination is stifled by the European model of life in the
tropical forest, where it is either verdant or devastated, and a
degenerate civilization, where regal women fan themselves while
powerful men abuse others.

Nominated for the Best Motion Picture, Foreign Language by

the International Press Academy Satellite Awards
and is
included in the same category for
the Golden Globe Awards
, native Yucatecan Mayan speakers can
barely comprehend the dialog and it is doubtful that this film
would carry currency among the monolingual Maya. Dr. Francisco
Rosado-May — the agro-ecologist rector of the new Maya
Intercultural University and descendant of the famed rebel leader
General Francisco May — applauds the good intentions to attempt
dialog apocalypto2.jpgin his native tongue, but “except for
two actors — the elderly storyteller and the afflicted child — the
language is very stilted, difficult to understand, ungrammatical
and with a thick foreign accent.” I guess that the best motion
picture in a foreign language does not have to resonate among their
speakers. It will be next year when it opens south of the border

The movie is paced to keep your attention rapt and in this it
was overkill. While ostensibly set somewhere among the Maya
evidently at the eve of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century,
none of the details add up. National Geographic Digital Media
claims that the action movie “takes place in the Classic Period
(AD250-900)… modeled on Preclassic Mirador as well as the Classic
city of Tikal.” The city scenes are indeed intriguing
offering a glimmer of the potentials of film creativity, but they
are brief and only a sidebar to the mayhem. A mix-and-match
hodge-podge of the grotesque myths of Mesoamerica extracted from
the earliest Maya to the conquest Aztec, historical accuracy is not
evident. Yet Gibson is quoted saying his archaeologist consultant
Richard Hansen
was able to “make us feel secure that what we
were writing had authenticity.” Hansen, whose work at Mirador is
supported by National Geographic, says that Gibson went to extreme
lengths to bring the ancient world to life and providing “an
opportunity to see what it would look like originally.”

Apocalypto’s screenwriter Farhad Safinia, following
Gibson’s lead, says the film intends to draw parallels to our own
civilization with “widespread environmental degradation, excessive
consumption, and political corruption.” If this story was going to
be a reflection on our own times as with Jared Diamond’s
Collapse, this may be the real problem in understanding
the Maya as their collapse may not have anything to do with these

Received wisdom has it that the destruction of the Maya forest
today is a result of the same disregard for the environment as in
the past, but ecologists and botanists working with local Maya have
learned the Maya forest as replete with maya%20garden.jpgeconomic value barely hinted at in the
film. Chocolate, vanilla, and allspice are from the Maya forest as
are avocado, mahogany, and chicle. In fact 90 percent of the
dominant plants are useful to humanity and traditional Maya farmers
have the most diverse domestic systems in the world. The Maya
forest is a wild garden left by the past cultivators and this is an
area where imagination could really help. (Photo of Maya forest
garden by Macduff Everton.)

Casual conversations in the theater indicated that those
awaiting this show were there to see a Gibson film. The trailers
that took the initial 15 minutes were all emphatic with violence,
suggesting themes of hostility and bloodshed have captivated
American audiences. Apocalypto was at the top of the
weekend’s box office charts. Perhaps this is the metaphor of
today’s society.

Dr. Anabel Ford is the director of the Mesoamerican Research Center at
UCSB and the president of Exploring Solutions Past.


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