Debate on Chac

by Rolando Klein and Shelton H. Davis

from Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977, p. 31
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2004

1. From the director, Rolando Klein

When Shelton H. Davis’ caustic critique on CHAC appeared in one of the back issues of Jump Cut over a year ago, in spite of all his misinformation, I felt no urge to reply. I presumed that it would be apparent to anyone that his preconceived animosity and his lack of objectivity towards the film had gone to the extreme of making the whole review senseless. Now that extracts of that article have appeared in Film Review Digest Annual, 1976, plus the fact that CHAC is building a steady following in the Bay Area, I believe that it is time to straighten the record.

Davis admits that he felt uneasy about CHAC even before seeing the film. “I felt tense in the moments before the film was shown,” he writes. “What was that tension about, why those feelings inside?” Apparently he came with the preconceived notion that I had exploited the Tzeltal Indians for my own personal greed. Those feelings must have been so strong in him as to make him completely unreceptive from the start. What I wish to clarify, though, is his pile of gruesome misinformation.

For starters, let me illustrate his misconceptions with a simple example. I quote Davis: “Those shots of barren, unproductive, drought ridden hills, were not taken in Tenejapa, but further to the South in Comitan, where no Mayan Indians live.” Actually those shots he mentions were done at the milpa of one of the local Tzeltals, on a hill 500 yards away from the Main Plaza of Tenejapa. As far as the film is concerned, it would not have mattered if those scenes were shot in Comitan, 150 miles away, because there are Mayan Indians in the Comitan area, contrary to what Davis says. Indians of Mayan descent are spread all over the South of Mexico in the States of Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and in Guatemala. In spite of their common ancestry, communities have developed with very different dialects and customs, to the extreme that the Lacandones of the Chiapas jungle, for example, and the Tzeltals of Tenejapa, although living less than 100 miles apart, do not understand each other’s language. Now Davis, having lived in a Mayan community in Guatemala, claims to speak a language “similar to Tzeltal and immediately was aware that the dialogue of the Indians didn't match the subtitles of the film.” He adds: “Many times they were making comments with stern faces which were just jokes between themselves.” Why couldn't Davis come up with examples to such a serious, unfounded accusation? Once again, in his passion, he has confused presumption with truth. He must have felt that was the way the Indians would get even with me for having exploited their services.

Actually the dialogue was translated and worked out by the Indian actors months before shooting started. We had rehearsed so much that by the time we began filming, we all knew every line by heart, and there was no room for ad libbing away from the script. Besides, the scenes were covered from various angles in a very conventional manner, and the only way we could edit the film afterwards was by having the same lines delivered in each take. So I paid very close attention to the dialogue.

What Davis forgot to mention (or didn't realize) was that not only Tzeltal but two other dialects are also spoken in the film. Davis missed other things too. Or, in his obstinate negativism, saw them falsely. Some insignificant ones like store bought cigars when they were hand made (the Lacandones actually plant tobacco and roll their own). But then he also saw the Diviner levitating during the rain ceremony, when in reality (and in the film) the Diviner remained motionless throughout, praying right on the ground, face to the fire. Some kind of magic the film must have had to make him see what wasn't there.

In his closing comment, Davis talks about the amount of wood that we burned for the ceremony. I quote: “For those who don't know, the really scarce resource in highland Chiapas is firewood rather than water. That Klein could have destroyed so much of this firewood in the filming of this scene 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.” Well, Davis, I hate to break this news to you. But, in reality, that impressive bonfire you saw was fed through underground pipes, using liquid gas as fuel. The wood worked as a screen, creating the illusion of a monumental pile of burning firewood. That just proves to you, Davis, that you shouldn't believe everything you see in the movies.

All this is just petty gossip. What we should look at is what triggered Davis’ anger. “The production of CHAC,” he says, “represents a new phase in the film industry’s exploitation of Indian people ... My impression is that he and his sponsors, are interested in cashing in on a market both in this country and in Latin America.” Anybody in the film industry knows well that a subtitled movie with no name stars and an unknown director has practically no chances of recuperating its cost. So your argument doesn't hold water, Davis.

Whatever my reasons for making this film, Davis truly believes that I have manipulated and deceived the Indians and the audience. And that belief seems to be the problem. From a director’s point of view, I have to say, yes, of course I manipulated. That is what a film director does: he manipulates people and objects and molds them to the imagery of his soul. You think that Eisenstein, with all his Leninist convictions, did not use extras like cattle during his crowd scenes? In CHAC, the actors happened to be Indians, so many white liberals become over-sensitive towards them. As if they were a rare species of extinct birds, that need to be protected condescendingly. It is the guilt transpiring after all those decades of colonialism.

Like Davis, I also spent two years in Mayan country. And many more, researching in libraries. CHAC reflects the way I saw that culture, in my own eyes. It is a personal account of the powers of its ancestry.

Davis is right. In Tenejapa it doesn't happen that way. CHAC is not an anthropological documentary. It is a film about myth. The Indians are exploited in it like actors in a play. But in a play they can relate to. Rooted in its own heritage. Every element in that story has its reference to Mayan myth or tradition. From the Popol Vuh, to the frogs, to the blow gun and the dwarf. Woven from stories they told me or their ancestors told others.

If nothing else, this film is creating a certain awareness. It focuses attention on a dying culture, ruthlessly crushed by our ever-growing technological society. A culture that perhaps holds truths that we, with our bag of apparent sophisticated progress, don't even begin to fathom. You see, Davis, we may even be on the same team, after all.

2. From the critic, Shelton H. Davis

It is nearly two years since I saw CHAC and wrote the review which appeared in Jump Cut No. 7. I do not wish to comment on all the details in Mr. Klein’s letter, because I think they would only bore your readers. There are two points, however, I wish to make.

The first point concerns the exploitation of native peoples, whether by anthropologists or independent filmmakers. As I noted in my Jump Cut review, before seeing CHAC I had read Hans Ehrmann’s article, “The Making of a Mayan Movie,” in the March 28, 1975 edition of the Berkeley Barb.   Ehrmann noted that a number of labor problems arose in the filming of CHAC. The Indian cast was said to have gone on strike over wages on three occasions. Pablo Canche Balam, the main actor, was claimed to have slipped 100 feet in filming one scene. Part of the crew was described as nearly drowning when a canoe overturned. A group of actors were said to have rented a bus in order to escape from a sequence being shot in Comitan.

All of these things were mentioned in Ehrmann’s article and noted in my review. The point, though, is that practices such as these are typical of both anthropologists and filmmakers in their approaches to native communities. The term “intervention,” I believe, is too neutral to describe such a situation. More appropriate would be the term, “exploitation.” Unfortunately, such exploitation of native peoples has become standard practice in anthropological fieldwork, and (according to Hans Ehrmann’s article) seemed to have characterized the making of Mr. Klein’s film.

My second point concerns Mr. Klein’s comment that CHAC is a “film about myth.” The point of my review was to show that CHAC was not about myth, but that it was a myth itself—i.e., that it was a figment of Mr. Klein’s imagination.

Now, some people may like to see myths about Indians. I myself, however, think that such myth-making is pernicious. It obscures, as I noted in my review, the real survival issues which indigenous peoples face. It overlooks the social, political, and existential conditions under which indigenous peoples live. It perpetuates false images about groups of people whose major desire is to be left alone. It was for these reasons that I quoted from Vine Delorla’s essay, “Indians: The Real and the Unreel” (in Custer Died For Your Sins) in the first paragraph of my review.

In the final paragraph of his letter, Mr. Klein states that CHAC “focuses attention on a dying culture, ruthlessly crushed by our ever-growing technological society.” For anyone who has seen CHAC, this statement is a gross misrepresentation of the theme of the film. There is not a single mention in CHAC about the four centuries of oppression faced by the Mayan Indians of southern Mexico. There is no mention of the system of labor contracting in the Chiapas Highlands, whereby Indians are forced to work on large coffee plantations in exchange for a miserable wage. There is nothing about the Mexican Government’s relationship to the community of Tenejapa, about the rise of political bossism in this community, or the compromises which have been made in the agrarian reform. CHAC has nothing to say about these realities of life in the Highlands of Chiapas. To the contrary, as Mr. Klein states in his letter Chac is a film about frogs, blowguns, and dwarfs.

There is much more I would like to say about CHAC, but that would take an entire book on how filmmakers and anthropologists exploit native peoples for their own professional and personal ends. I stand by what I said in my review of CHAC two years ago. It still seems to me that CHAC is an eminently worthless, but highly marketable, film.