A week or two ago, I posted an “early” review of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto on this blog. I’m no expert on the Maya or the Aztecs, and found the film’s historicity disconcerting. It seemed to conflate the Maya and the Aztec and, in a first draft of my review, I referred to Jaguar Paw’s pursuers as “Aztecs.” I’ve since made a correction to that piece, and added a link to an article by an archeaologist about the historical inaccuracies in the film.
And although I disliked the movie as entertainment, I did find it interesting and rich, particularly in relation to its mobilization of gender. The frame of the movie is masculinity: fatherhood, virility, patrilineality. Whether it be the humor about eating tapir balls, or the proclamation by Jaguar Paw and his father that they have hunted in “these woods” for generations, etc., all underscore that what drives the movie is a particular construct of masculinity. I don’t particularly care about historical accuracy or inaccuracy because I don’t expect invention to be a faithful depiction of “reality” or “truth.” Apocalypto is a text to critically examine and challenge. We can talk about it in relation to gender, race and historical vision, and it can allow us to teach to the problems of the present, even when discussing the distant past.
But now for a different point of view.
For the last few days, I’ve been watching as several scholars in the field of Latin American Studies discuss Apocalypto on a listserve to which I subscribe. The exchange began when a professor wrote in soliciting opinions about the film. He was disturbed by the lack of “outrage” among scholars by the distortions of the film, and wondered about what responsibility, if any, experts and educators had, to counter them in the mainstream culture.
A few highlights:
Someone worried aloud about Gibson’s film “contaminating” students’ perception of truth or reality. (To be fair, this scholar also wonders about the power of using the film as a classroom tool for learning about the Maya.)
More than one respondent noted that the film might generate more interest in the field of Latin American history, and that it could and should invite critical discussion about the nature and ideological ramifications of representing native peoples.
One participant decried the ways in which academic “consultants” allied themselves with Gibson and the making of the film and asks a series of pointed questions about who these people were and what they did or did not contribute to the misrepresentations contained in the film.
Another scholar suggested that the way to counter Gibson was to go beyond representation and historical “truths” (which, after all, are constructions) and talk to our students about the ways in which the indigenous are mistreated today. In this way, students will become aware of how the film contributes to the continuing mistreatment of native peoples.
Some scholars are clearly irate about the film’s “fabrications” and wonder about how to rectify them in class and in society while others accept the textuality of the film a priori, underlining its richness for speaking about the present, and about the history of representations of native peoples. I agree with this more poststructuralist cohort. Apocalypto can help professors illustrate the historical tropes used to construct native peoples as idealized noble savages and demonized monsters. (I see the film as a juxtaposition of the imagery of Theodore Galle’s late 16th century illustration “Vespucci waking America from its slumber” and Theodore de Brye’s evocation of New World cannibals cooking body parts.) As someone wrote on the listserve, the movie gives us teachable moments.
In a future post, I want to write about how and why my students love The Motorcycle Diaries so much. It’s a related discussion, no doubt.
(I’ve excluded all identifying information of the listserve respondents because it is not clear to me that the listserve participants consider their interventions to be public or not, despite the fact that they are published and preserved on the web. For the web savvy, finding the listserve logs online would not be that difficult.)
For one discussion of the historical inaccuracies of the film, go here.