“Politics of Language in the Production and Reception of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto”, November 27, 2007

Hilario Chi Canul discussed his work as Mel Gibson’s language trainer on the production of the film Apocalypto. His lecture started with an account of his humble beginnings and how he was hired and what this position has meant for him in his career trajectory. Although he initially used a translator for the Spanish-to-English part of the training, he eventually began to learn English on his own as part of his work process. He made revealing commentaries about such issues as the significance of the indigenous identity of the actors in terms of the politics of work and the moral interpretation of the film, the social interactions between actors and others on the film crew, and the ease or difficulty of the actors to learn Maya according to their own native indigenous language.

Workshop by Hilario Chi Canul and Dr. Juan Castillo Cocom.

Chi Canul extended his discussion of the politics of language in the workshop by exploring the significance of the film to Maya speakers in Yucatán. He noted that the film has had a positive effect on Yucatecans who speak Maya and identify as Maya. Despite the predominant interpretation of the film as having a negative portrayal of the Maya people, culture, and civilization, Chi Canul discussed how the film has actually brought international prestige to the language that is actively disparaged by dominant “white” society. Hilario pointed out that the film is fiction and should be understood as a fictional adventure story. In this context, the Apocalypto promotes Maya language in a way that has profound implications for Maya and Yucatecos. Dr. Juan Castillo Cocom explored aspects of the reviews of the film Apocalypto by different elements of Yucatec and Mexican society. His insightful analysis pointed out that the negative reviews were voiced by Mexican or US intelligentsia speaking in the name of the Maya and Mayans from Guatemala who offered an anticipated uniformly critical evaluation of Gibson and the film. He noted that the Maya (i.e., Maya who are from Yucatán, at least sometimes identify as Maya, and speak the Mayan language called Maya) who critiqued the film were all persons that had been denied employment by Gibson in the production of the film. In contrast, the general popular reception of the film has been positive, not only as an adventure film, but as a positive portrayal of the language that is a primary core element of any identification of Maya as Maya.