The making of a “Mayan” movie?

by Sheldon H. Davis

from Jump Cut, no. 7, 1975, pp. 8-10
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

“Indians are like the weather. Everyone knows all about the weather, but none can change it. When storms are predicted, the sun shines. When picnic weather is announced, the rain begins ... Because people can see right through us, it becomes impossible to tell truth from fiction or fact from mythology ... The more we try to be ourselves the more we are forced to defend what we have never been ...”—Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins

I saw Chilean filmmaker Rolando Klein’s CHAC at the Pacific Film Archive on Wednesday, April 2, in what was billed as the film’s first Bay Area showing. Even before seeing the film, I was anxious to know what it was about. I had spent two years in a Mayan Indian community in Guatemala, which was similar to the Mexican village of Tenejapa where CHAC was filmed, and was teaching a course at Laney College in Oakland on the social and cultural history of the Maya. Also, over the past two years I have been co-director of an organization called INDIGENA (1) (the Spanish word for Native American), and hence CHAC was a film which I thought I should see.

During the week previous to seeing the film I learned two things about CHAC. The first piece of information cane from the program notes of the Pacific Film Archive and is worth quoting in full:

“This extraordinary first feature by a Chilean filmmaker (graduated from the UCLA Film school) working with Panamanian money in Mexico has been the unexpected “find” of the year for Film Festival organizers and critic-talent scouts. Its World Premiere took place on March 21 at the Los Angeles Film Exposition, where Richard Whitehall wrote: “mysterious in its metaphysics and magic, CHAC has certain resemblances to the films of Alexander Jodorowsky. But the ritualized form of the quest, an odyssey, in which the film is cast is closer in spirit to the works of Carlos Casteneda. CHAC (the God of rain in Mayan myth) is incantation, spell, simple and direct in its content, elegiac in its imagery, complex in its form. Its theme, ostensibly, is of a search for a rainmaker capable of placating the Gods and bringing rain to a drought striken village ... Beautifully made and finely acted by a group of presumably nonprofessional Indian villagers (since the supply of Tzeltal-speaking actors must be severely limited), there is a timeless, legendary quality to the work that makes it one of the most fascinating of recent films ...”

CHAC, I also learned, had been selected for showing by Filmex in Los Angeles, the New Director’s Series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Festival.

My second piece of information came from an article which appeared in the Berkley Barb (3/28/75), a review titled “Making a Mayan Movie,” written also by a Chilean, Hans Ehrmann, just a couple of days before its showing at the Pacific Film Archives. Ehrmann provided a great deal of background to the filming of CHAC although there was no discussion or criticism of the film as such.

Ehrmann points out that the Tzeltal-speaking actors in the film had all come from the village of Tenejapa in Chiapas, Mexico, and that they had been recruited by Klein by talking to people in the marketplace. Despite attempts by the director and his crew to establish friendly relations with the Indian community, however, labor problems were a significant factor in making the film. Wages paid to the Indian actors were initially set at two and a half dollars per day, but then, following protest and negotiations, were raised to four dollars, plus meals, per day. Ehrmann wrote, “Financial discussions, ... were friendly, but did not prevent three strikes by the cast.” Further, Ehrmann described how numerous film technicians swarmed upon the isolated Indian village (23 technicians were forced upon Klein and his crew by the Mexican film union). He also described other nasty incidents which occurred: Pablo Canche Balan, the main actor, accidentally slipped 100 feet in the filming of one scene in a cave. A group of actors rented a bus and attempted to escape from the project in a sequence shot in Comitan. And part of the crew nearly drowned when a canoe overturned in a scene shot in the Chiapas jungles. The making of the film, in other words, was no fiesta for the Indian actors involved.

On the other hand, Ehrmann did point out that the director did have some sensitivity to the problems posed by his own intervention, as a non-Indian filmmaker, into the community. Klein was quoted as saying,

“I realized how life here [in Tenejapa] would change with a fast, instantaneous, painful blow, like birth. The technical evolution that took Europe 3,000 years and the urban parts of Latin America four centuries, would be accomplished here in the course of a generation.”

.”.. If I could only have made the film following the Indians’ rhythm of life. Unfortunately, to make a film is so expensive [$300,000 for CHAC] that we had to do the exact opposite, always trying to speed things as much as possible.”

Perhaps, I thought, the director’s sensitivity would surmount the social problems which the film created for the people of Tenejapa. However, I felt tense in the moments before CHAC was shown, and that tension grew as I began to view the film. The plot of the film was easy enough to follow. An Indian village in the Chiapas highlands is without rain. The local elders are unable to produce rain. A hermit-prophet is found in the mountains. The prophet takes the villagers to the jungle. The hermit-prophet returns to the village and holds a rain ceremony. There is no rain. Finally, the disgusted villagers go in search of the hermit-prophet and assassinate him. They throw his body into a huge ravine with a lake below, and then they return to their village where, at last, it rains.

Interspersed with this rather simple story are other themes: A deeply pensive, mute Indian boy becomes ill near the end of the film and accompanies the villagers on their quest with the prophet. A younger Indian is skeptical of the powers of traditional religion and intrigued by the technology (represented by his possession of a flashlight) of the non-Indian world. A semi-political dispute arises between the village cacique (Indian political leader) and the hermit-prophet. The highland Indians visit the jungle-dwelling Lacandon peoples. A surrealistically created dream depicts one of the Indians encountering what looks like a midget or a priest (perhaps both) hiding in a tree at night. There are various scenes of anxious Indian women waiting for their men to return from the quest, etc.

Similarly, the film has a certain beauty in the film, which goes along with its simple plot: the faces of the people as if carved from stone, their feet digging into the earth as they climbed the mountains, their religiosity and spirituality, their sense of collective destiny in the face of a natural threat. All of them affected me. Yet I still felt tension, as if something was deeply wrong and deceptive about CHAC.

What was that tension about, why those feelings inside? I believe they had to do with the falseness of CHAC, the technology of the film, the presence of the filmmaker editing his film in the laboratory and creating something which was supposed to be real, beautiful, human, and spiritual, but which in the end, like the mist in the Chiapas Highlands, went through your fingers and wasn't ever there.

I speak a Mayan language similar to Tzeltal and immediately was aware that the Indians’ dialogue didn't match the film’s subtitles. Many times, they were making comments with stern, serious faces which were just jokes between themselves. Further, I knew the Mayans were a very comic and joyful people, and this human quality (that of peasant, working, and Indian peoples throughout the world) just never came through in the movie. When the Maya walk up hills, for example, they play practical jokes on each other, they gossip, they compare people to animals and are fond of making comments about the bestial aspects of sex, they talk about every conceivable topic and generally they try, like all real people, to pass the time. Even when they have ceremonies (many of which I have attended), there is a sense of the comic and the absurd. It is an element which keeps the people together and which is needed for the passage of even sacred and ceremonial time.

Initially, it should be noted, Klein had a difficult time recruiting the Indian actors because, as they put it, how could they be actors when many of them didn't know how to sing or dance or play the guitar? Where, I thought, was the music (guitars, harps, flutes, drums, chants, poetry, etc.) which was and is so much a part of Mayan life?

Most important, there was scene after scene in CHAC which appeared to have been created by the filmmaker and which never would have taken place in Mayan life. The shots of barren, unproductive, drought-ridden hills, for example, were not taken in Tenejapa but further to the south in Comitan, where no Mayan Indians live. Similarly, shots of the Tzeltal visiting the Lacandon Indians (who were smoking store-bought rather than native cigars) would have never occurred in actual life. All of the highland Indians fear the Lacandon people in the jungles. It forms a basic part of their oral traditions, legends and myths, Finally, in Maya society I knew there was no such thing as a hermit living alone on top of a hill. Amongst the Maya, if you are a holy man, you live in a community just like everyone else.

During the discussion following the film Rolando Klein was present, and it became clear to me that my tensions were legitimate ones. Klein, I believe, was trying to “put on” both me and the rest of the audience through the creation of a grossly inaccurate and vulgar movie that had been passed off by the “film festival organizers and critic-talent scouts” as a film of extraordinary and monumental scope. CHAC, like American advertising and slick Hollywood films, was a deception and a lie. Taking the highest deity in the Mayan Pantheon (rather like calling a film “Jesus Christ,” “Buddha” or “Shiva”) as its title is enough to lead one to ask questions about why this film was ever made.

The issue, I think, boils down to this: CHAC is neither a piece of “ethnographic documentation” nor a “science fiction” film but a very deceptive combination of both. On the ethnographic side, Klein admits that the film wasn't intended to portray Mayan culture or religious values in an anthropological or historical sense. The story, he admits, was created by himself and has no resemblance to any actual myth, legend or historical event. Yet, Klein uses a series of cinematographic techniques which create the impression that he is dealing with a cultural, historic, or mythic “reality.” He opens the film with a quote from the Popol Vuh (the Sacred Book of the Quiche Maya). He uses Tzeltal as the language of the film. He places poorly done Mayan glyph signs in the corner of the film. He takes out every aspect of Western material culture, beside a flashlight and rifles, from the set. He includes elements of Mayan ceremonials, which “look like” the real thing, but which have very little to do with ancient or contemporary Mayan ceremonial life. In the end, the viewer thinks that he or she is seeing “something” about the Maya, but actually that “something” is a figment of director Klein’s mind. The film isn't ethnographic documentation although it gives the impression of being such.

The same can be said about the film’s “science fiction” quality. In two very important scenes (the walking of the hermit-prophet and the villagers over a waterfall and the levitation of the hermit-prophet over the village while in the rain ceremony) Klein shows himself to be at least familiar with the usual technological methods of the science fiction film. Yet, the film isn't science fiction. The viewer isn't taken into outer space or into some fantasy world of the year 2001. He or she is in highland Chiapas, seeing Mayan Indians walking on waterfalls and Mayan spiritual leaders leaving the earth. This is the deception—for how can these Indians be so beautiful and spiritual (i.e., so close to the earth and land) and yet on film be able to do things like creatures out of a science fiction script? Are we to believe, perhaps, that they come from another planet, as the people in Eric Von Däniken’s Chariot of the Gods or Gods from Outer Space?

In the discussion following the Berkeley showing of CHAC, Klein claimed that he was trying to make a film which reflected what he termed the “pre-scientific” consciousness of the Mayans. By asserting this idea, I believe, he was trying to tell his audience that the film was really like Carlos Castaneda’s forays into the “mind” of the Yaqui holy man Don Juan. Again, this seemed to me to have been a trick, a trick of the advertising agent, rather than a truthful statement by a concerned and critical artist.

First, to pass the Maya off as “pre-scientific” is a gross falsification and absurdity. The Maya created a complex (still to be deciphered) mathematics, discovered the concept of the zero, had a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, were aware of the medical value of acupuncture, and produced an architecture which was on the level of any “scientific” civilization in the Old, New, or Eastern World of its own time. They were the American continent’s “scientists par excellence.” Even today Mayan Indians are empirical in their ways of thinking about nature, work, the human body and the world. To call them “pre-scientific” (harking back to racist notions about “lobotomized“/ “pre-logical primitives”) shows the shallowness of Klein’s knowledge of the Maya, their cosmology, values and ways of life.

Second, to compare his own work to Castaneda’s is also deceptive. If anything, the value of Castaneda’s trilogy was that throughout it the author questioned the spuriousness of his own culture, the ways in which his own training and perception made it impossible to penetrate the depth of Don Juan’s knowledge, world and thought. Klein does the exact opposite of this. Rather than “control” (or even discuss) his own worldview (which is essentially that of a very technologically trained filmmaker) in the course of the film (as I believe Castaneda, would have done), he “uses” his technology and own perspective to “interpret” and “manipulate” Mayan peoples and symbols in order to produce an effect. The comparison between Castaneda and Klein is absurd.

So why did Klein make this film? My impression is that he, and his sponsors, are interested in cashing in on a market both in this country and in Latin America. Perhaps I am wrong, for I am told that Klein is the son of a wealthy (anti-Allende) Chilean mine owner. Maybe he could afford the $300,000 for the making of a serious “film of art.” The money for the film, however, is said to have come from Panama, and Todd-AO is mentioned in its acknowledgements. I would predict that this film will soon be a commercial success. Having been done in Mayan, and already translated (sic) into English, it presents little problem for wide distribution throughout the hemisphere and the capitalist, film-distributing world. Further, there is a market for this stuff both in the United States and in a commercially produced and exported “youth-drug-electric rock” culture which is now emerging in the cities of Latin America. What better thing for middle and upper class Latin American kids to do than get “spaced out” on the large Indian populations in their midst?

Most insidious, I believe, the production of CHAC represents a new phase in the film industry’s exploitation of Indian people. It is no longer possible to make a film in the genre of the old “Cowboy/ Indian/ U.S. Cavalry” films of the past. Young Indians would picket the theaters, and youths can no longer accept the image of Indians as “savages” before the advance of “Western civilization” in their midst. So now, the fibs will be made in South America, using Indian communities such as Tenejapa for the set and actors, and capitalizing on the image of the Indian as a “mystic creature from outer space.” Indian peoples’ real life and death situations (poverty, wretchedness, exploitation and racism) will continue to be overlooked, and more films will be made in the genre of CHAC.

One final comment on this “Mayan” movie. There’s one scene (rather like a Greek festival) where all of the Indians are carrying firewood (tumplines attached to their foreheads and down their backs) down to the village in preparation for the rain ceremony of the hermit-prophet. The supply of firewood is enormous and is burnt during the ceremony, held at sunset. For those who don't know, the really scarce resource (besides land, which, had been taken by surrounding non-Indian hacienda owners) in highland Chiapas is firewood, rather than water. That Klein could have destroyed so much of this firewood in the filming of this scene (no matter how much or little he paid the people of Tenejapa) is gross beyond belief. Indian children in communities such as Tenejapa die because there is no firewood to heat them in the cold, rainy nights. Knowing this, I cringed inside when the first comment I heard following CHAC was “beautiful, just a beautiful movie.”


1. INDIGENA is an information and documentation center on the Indian peoples of the Americas. The quarterly INDIGENA Newsletter can be obtained by writing: P.O. Box 4073, Berkeley, California 94704.