Much like his bloody epic about the death of Christ, a new Mel Gibson production about the collapse of the Mayan civilisation is angering members of the culture it depicts even before it hits the screen.
The Passion of Christ was accused by some of being anti-Semitic—long before Gibson’s career-damaging outbursts against a Jewish policeman in Malibu this year.
Now indigenous activists in Guatemala, once home to a large part of the Mayan empire that built elaborate jungle cities in southern Mexico and northern Central America centuries ago, say his film Apocalypto is racist.
Gibson’s representatives were not immediately available for comment.
Only trailers for Apocalypto, which will be released on Friday, have been shown in Guatemala, but leaders say scenes of scary-looking Mayans with bone piercings and scarred faces hurling spears and sacrificing humans promote stereotypes about their culture.
“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,” said Ignacio Ochoa, director of the Nahual Foundation that promotes Mayan culture.
At their height, the Maya built monumental cities in the Peten region of Guatemala, but the civilisation went into decline after the 8th century, some say because of overuse of natural resources.
The culture is not thought to have been as blood-thirsty as the neighbouring Aztec empire, but some archeologists say human sacrifice was common in the final years before the Spanish conquest.
More than half of Guatemala’s population is descended from the original Maya. They face frequent discrimination and most live in poverty with little access to education and social services.
More than 200,000 people, mostly Mayan, were killed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war that ended a decade ago. Some rights groups say the army tried to wipe out the Maya.
Lucio Yaxon, a 23-year-old Mayan human rights activist, said Apocalypto’s heart-pounding trailer was unrealistic.
“Basically the director is saying the Mayans are savages,” said Yaxon, who speaks Kaqchikel, one of 22 Guatemalan Mayan languages, as well as Spanish.
But Richard Hansen, an archaeologist who Gibson consulted on the making of the film, says the director took pains to ensure authenticity and historical accuracy.
The entire script is spoken in Yucatec Maya and the star is a Native American dancer named Rudy Youngblood. Gibson’s use of indigenous actors has won praise from Latino and Native American groups in the United States.
“I am a little apprehensive about how the Maya themselves are going to perceive it,” said Hansen, who directs an archeological project at the Mirador Basin in northern Guatemala, “but Gibson is trying to make a social statement”.