Logic Of Genocide
By Juan Santos
17 December, 2006
Gibson’s Apocalypto is not a mere adventure tale, it’s not
just another excruciatingly brutal portrayal of apocalyptic violence
for its own sake, and the Village Voice is dead wrong when it says that
unlike Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto is “unburdened
by nationalist or religious piety,”— that it's “pure,
Despite its extreme brutality
Apocalypto isn’t just Gibson’s latest snuff film with a
religious theme. The film is a morality play, and there are only two
things one needs to remember to get a hint of the ugly moral intent
behind Mel Gibson’s depiction of the Maya.
The first is that, despite
Gibson’s vile portrayal of the Maya as a macabre cult of deranged
killers straight out of Apocalypse Now!, there is no evidence that the
Mayan people ever practiced widespread human sacrifice, and they certainly
didn’t target the innocent hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists
Gibson chooses to portray as the victims of a Mayan death cult.
Gibson knows better. He studied
the terrain in depth and had no practical limit to the funds he could
expend on research. His portrayal is a conscious lie, one he uses to
justify the premise that the Mayan city states collapsed because they
deserved to collapse, and that they deserved to be replaced by a “superior”
culture in the genocide known as the Conquest.
"A great civilization
is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within,"
is how Gibson puts it. In other words the Conquest was not genocide
but a moral comeuppance; the civilization didn’t fall, in the
final analysis, from climate change or inadvertent soil depletion or
even war – it was conquered in god’s wrath against the forces
of evil. And Gibson’s made sure you see the ancient Maya as a
force of profound evil.
Here’s a taste of the
standards Gibson used in conjuring his image of the Maya. The LA Times
quotes production designer Tom Sanders:
"We had an archeologist,
Dr. Richard Hansen, onboard," said Sanders. "It was really
fun to say, 'Is there any proof they didn't do this?' When he said,
'There is no proof they didn't do that,' that gives you some license
to play.” And “play” they did. Rex Reed calls the
racist portrayal of the Maya Gibson’s “huge cast of spear-carriers
from the Oom-Gawah-Bwana School of Dramatic Art.”
In a stunning interview with
Chris Garcia of the Austin American Statesman, Julia Guernsey, an expert
on Mayan culture at the University of Texas says of Gibson’s agenda,
"’We got the Jews last time (in 'The Passion of the Christ'),
now we'll get the Maya.’ And to highlight that point there's a
lot of really offensive racial stereotyping. They're shown as these
extremely barbaric people, when in fact, the Maya were a very sophisticated
culture… I hate it. I despise it. I think it's despicable. It's
offensive to Maya people. It's offensive to those of us who try to teach
The other hint you might
need to remember is this. No matter what happens in this film, the Spanish
don’t show up at the end, at the collapse of the Mayan civilization,
to “save” anything at all.
Hundreds of years would pass
between the collapse of the Mayan city states and the American Holocaust.
For the sake of empire the Spanish would sacrifice 95% of the population
in Mexico, a horror they would achieve in a mere 100 years. Hitler’s
holocaust, with its 20 million dead, pales: the Conquest of the Americas
by Europe would claim 100 million lives. There is no more savage genocide
in the history of civilization.
But if you’re looking
for savagery, the holocaust against the Mayan people doesn’t stop
there. The most recent wave ended a mere decade ago. A quarter of a
million innocent Maya were slaughtered in Guatemala by a death squad
regime backed by the Gibson’s cohorts on the Christian Right,
including Ronald Reagan and apocalyptic fanatics like Pat Robertson
and Jerry Falwell. It’s called “The Silent Holocaust”
by those who know of it.
The Maya have suffered a
modern apocalypse more brutal than anything in Gibson’s sadistic
imagination, more brutal than even he would dare bring to the screen.
It’s a tale he would refuse: its demons aren’t “savage”
Mayans in horror movie drag, they’re Christian death squads backed
by fundamentalist leaders using old school Spanish methods. A British
anti-war organization writes:
across the Mayan region, the army and its paramilitary teams, including
'civil patrols' of forcibly conscripted local men, attacked 626 villages.
Each community was rounded up, or seized when gathered already for a
celebration or a market day. The villagers, if they didn't escape to
become hunted refugees, were then brutally murdered; others were forced
to watch, and sometimes to take part. Buildings were vandalised and
demolished, and a 'scorched earth' policy applied: the killers destroyed
crops, slaughtered livestock, fouled water supplies, and violated sacred
places and cultural symbols.
”Children were often
beaten against walls, or thrown alive into pits where the bodies of
adults were later thrown; they were also tortured and raped. Victims
of all ages often had their limbs amputated, or were impaled and left
to die slowly. Others were doused in petrol and set alight, or disemboweled
while still alive. Yet others were shot repeatedly, or tortured and
shut up alone to die in pain. The wombs of pregnant women were cut open.
Women were routinely raped while being tortured. Women - now widows
- who lived could scarcely survive the trauma: The presence of sexual
violence in the social memory of the communities has become a source
of collective shame.”
Gibson hasn’t told
the story of the hunted refugees fleeing Christian death squads a decade
ago. His ancient hunters are nothing more than figments of his imagination,
racist stereotypes of ancient Mayans who existed nowhere but in his
own delirium tremens. They are his own demons chasing his imaginary
hero / victim / alter ego, Jaguar Paw, through a “savage”
The framework of the story
is deeply embedded in Gibson’s extreme right wing religious and
political views. He casts Mayan priests and leaders as demonically malevolent
at a time when interest is growing world wide in Mayan politics –
the Zaptistas – and in Mayan spirituality and prophecy. The subtext
of the film and its social context involve the Mayan prophecies of the
end of an age of destruction, and the beginning of another around 2012
C.E., an age that can lead to harmony between humanity and the Earth.
The biblical counter-vision
is of a righteous world-destruction carried out by a vengeful god who
destroys all living creatures, a vision embedded in the Apocalypse of
Saint John, the Book of Revelations, which was the inspiration for the
The Maya who survived the
killing in Guatemala and elsewhere kept their spiritual traditions alive
- including their prophecies of the end of this age - despite 500 years
of intensive efforts to eradicate them. Right wing Christians see hell-driven
New Age plots at every turn, and understand attacking other culture’s
spiritual traditions not as cultural genocide but as legitimate “spiritual
warfare” at a time of approaching apocalypse.
Gibson brought Apocalypto
to life on the propaganda front of a spiritual war, a deadly serious
culture war between those who would protect and defend the Earth’s
ability to live and those on the Christian Right who want to “bring
The larger stakes are the
future of life on planet Earth in a time when the industrial civilization
of the West is seen by many as on the brink of collapse and when the
world’s most respected scientists see Earth as on the verge of
ecological destruction, a sentiment that is deeply shared by the living
Mayan wisdom keepers whose indigenous spiritual tradition Gibson has
chosen to paint as evil.
The survivors of the most
recent wave of genocide haven’t seen Apocalypto yet – no
Maya has, not even those who had the bit parts Gibson reserved for them,
or who worked as extras and maids.
One can’t help but
wonder how Apocalypto will play to Guatemalan audiences, but one thing
is a sure bet: Mayans will be deeply disturbed to see their culture
portrayed as a madhouse of killing, while those who supported the death
squad regime of the Christian fascist Efraín Ríos Montt
will take solace: their view of the Maya as subhuman will be “justified”
by the film, and so will their genocidal reign of terror.
Racist stereotypes, after
all, serve one function and one function only – they serve as
a story, a script that justifies the use of violence against a targeted
group, whether the weapons of the oppressor are the sword and cannon,
the gas chamber, the M16, a lynch mob’s rope, or a camera.
One viewer understood and
embraced Gibson’s intent in its entirety, saying Apocalypto:
“Pretty much precisely
describes the whole point of the civilizations of such “noble
savages” as the Mayans, if you ask us. There isn’t one,
there wasn’t one, and there never will be one. Those bloodthirsty
mongrels and many others before and after them were brutal, savage,
cruel and entirely without redeeming qualities, and the best thing that
ever happened to this planet was when they were wiped out, never to
be heard of again.
In fact, we owe the Spanish
Conquistadores an eternal debt of gratitude for having wiped that blood-curdlingly
bestial, brutal blight upon humanity off the face of the planet because,
had they not done it, we would have had to do so ourselves.”
The son of a Holocaust denier,
Gibson defended his father in a 2004 interview, and, in the wake of
his recent drunken tirades against Jews, Gibson can ill afford charges
of propagating racism against Indians. The film’s PR campaign
has carefully skirted potential opposition and negative exposure. Despite
that effort Mayan activists who’ve seen nothing more than the
film’s trailer denounced the film the day before it opened.
Ignacio Ochoa, director of
the Nahual Foundation, said "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 deserved,
in fact needed, rescue."
The Indians who’ve
seen the film itself have been a carefully chosen crew; Apocalypto,
for all its epic pretensions, premiered in an Oklahoma casino, and certainly
not for an audience of American Indian Movement activists. The initial
Latino audience was chosen just as carefully. A Beverly Hills-based
PR man arranged screenings of the film for the Los Angeles Latin Business
Association – not for Mexican and Central American migrants who
know the Maya, not for indigenous minded Chican@s, and certainly not
for LA’s substantial community of Mayan refugees.
The Latin Business Association
obligingly gave Gibson their "Visionary” Award. But it’s
too late for Gibson to hide behind such contrived honors. Even the LA
Times pointedly noted, “ it's one thing to acknowledge a work's…
merits and quite another to proclaim Gibson a ‘visionary,’
especially at a time when the immigration debate has reminded Latinos
that virulent racism is only a few drinks away.”
Genocide is even closer than
that. Ask the Spanish. Ask the death squads. Ask Mel, behind the camera
or behind a small glass. It’s just a shot away.
Juan Santos is a Los Angeles based writer and editor.
His essays from 2006 can be found at:
He can be reached at: JuanSantos@Mexica.net
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