Traci Ardren, is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Miami. Dr. Ardren has studied the Maya for over twenty years and has directed excavations at Chunchucmil, an ancient Maya trading center in the northwestern Yucatán peninsula that dates to the Classic period (200 - 900 A.D.) Dr. Ardren is well aware of the violent aspects of the ancient Mayan Kingdoms, but she takes Mel Gibson to task for his colonial mindset, and asks the question, “How can we continue to produce such one-sided and clearly exploitative messages about the indigenous people of the New World?” In her article, Is Apocalypto Pornography?, written for the Archaeological Institute of America and appearing in their publication, Archaeology, Dr. Ardren writes the following:
“I am not a compulsively politically correct type who sees the Maya as the epitome of goodness and light. I know the Maya practiced brutal violence upon one another, and I have studied child sacrifice during the Classic period. But in Apocalypto, no mention is made of the achievements in science and art, the profound spirituality and connection to agricultural cycles, or the engineering feats of Maya cities. Instead, Gibson replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserve, in fact they needed, rescue. This same idea was used for 500 years to justify the subjugation of Maya people and it has been thoroughly deconstructed and rejected by Maya intellectuals and community leaders throughout the Maya area today.
[….] But I find the visual appeal of the film one of the most disturbing aspects of Apocalypto. The jungles of Veracruz and Costa Rica have never looked better, the masked priests on the temple jump right off a Classic Maya vase, and the people are gorgeous. The fact that this film was made in Mexico and filmed in the Yucatec Maya language coupled with its visual appeal makes it all the more dangerous. It looks authentic; viewers will be captivated by the crazy, exotic mess of the city and the howler monkeys in the jungle. And who really cares that the Maya were not living in cities when the Spanish arrived? Yes, Gibson includes the arrival of clearly Christian missionaries (these guys are too clean to be conquistadors) in the last five minutes of the story (in the real world the Spanish arrived 300 years after the last Maya city was abandoned). It is one of the few calm moments in an otherwise aggressively paced film. The message? The end is near and the savior has come.”
Professors of anthropology are not the only ones to rightly scorn Gibson’s film. J. Hoberman lambastes Apocalypto in a scorching review for the Village Voice: “Maybe the Mayans really did bounce human heads down the steps of their pyramids but, being as their civilization collapsed hundreds of years before the Spanish conquest, how would we know? ‘A lot of it, story-wise, I just made up,’ Gibson confessed to the Mexican junketeers who visited his set last year. ‘And then, oddly, when I checked it out with historians and archaeologists and so forth, it’s not that far off.” Or far out, for that matter. Irrational as it may be, Mel’s sense of history does have a logic: Jaguar Paw’s trip to hell ends when the Christians arrive.”
In his Violent Excess Mars Apocalypto, the movie reviewer for the Associated Press, David Germain, crowns Gibson as the “master of the epic snuff” film for the unrelenting gore and the scale of blood letting the director attempts to pass off as history. Noting how Gibson offers a distorted view of the ancient Maya, Germain writes “The panorama and bustle of the city are remarkably visceral, but the only sense Gibson provides of the heart of Mayan culture is that of a society of bloodthirsty lunatics.” Germain perceptibly gets to the core belief system behind Gibson’s film - which is not so surprisingly revealed in the film’s ending scene as the Spanish invaders come ashore prominently displaying a crucifix. Germain writes:
“What’s Gibson saying? That the Mayans already are rotting on the vine, so it’s just as well that self-righteous Europeans move in and start marking off their building lots? Like the more laughable violence of Apocalypto, the European arrival probably is best shrugged off and forgotten as just another weird apparition in a filmmaker’s grand but cruel and twisted vision.”
Grassroots opinions and reviews critical of Gibson’s film are starting to appear, and Xispas will continue to cover reaction to Apocalypto as the story develops. Gabriela Erandi Rico, a Doctoral Student in Comparative Ethnic Studies at U.C. Berkeley, wrote an essay about Apocalypto that is a review from a Native woman’s perspective. Circulating on the internet, it is as good a critique as you are likely to read anywhere, so we thought to reprint it here on the Xispas web log.
“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 Chicana/o community in order to attract Mexican-Americans to view the Mel Gibson’s new film, Apocalypto. I was one of the lucky ones who actually got into Shattuck Landmark Cinemas in Berkeley, where movie-goers lined up for the free screening around the theater’s street corner. 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 and was thus interested in how the site was used to capture the plot of the film. Curiosity got the best of me 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 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 awesome aesthetic reconstruction of Maya architecture and by sitting through a film mostly casted by Native American actors and listening to a 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, naïve (and apparently weaker) Indians. This nonstop violent carnage throughout the movie combined with the highlighting of human sacrifice portrayed the Mayans 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 by Gibson on his Apocalypto site) is that the Mayas were one of the greatest civilizations in the Americas. 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 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 in the mass genocide of Mayas during the Spanish Conquest? Or perhaps, the systematic contemporary genocide Mayas have continued 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 on 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 symbolisms 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 keep running). Such is the epic story of our tragic hero!—still destined to be extinguished by the canals of history and modernity. Not quite a flattering portrayal for Maya/Native people.
During a time when the portrayals of Native Americans in the 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. Indian cultures continue being capitalized upon by Hollywood and Indians continue being disposable, exotic (and in this case violent) others. Indigenous scholars like Vine Deloria and Shari Hundorf have already theorized why it’s so easy to appropriate and commodify the identities and histories of Native Americans. As a population, which has been continuously preyed upon, dispossessed and colonized, we are particularly vulnerable to such feats. 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 American Indians.”
[ UPDATE: Dec. 6th - Indigenous activists in Guatemala condemn Gibson's film as "racist." The views of the Mayan activists in Guatemala are reported in a Washington Post article titled, Maya say Gibson movie portrays them as savages. ]