Media Arts Program

Tuesday, September 12, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.


Maya Faces in a Smoking Mirror

A Film by William Jungels & Christine Eber

(2017, 75 min., in Spanish, English, & Tsotsil, with English subtitles)

Filmmaker's statement by Bill Jungels:

Shot in Chiapas over the past five years, Maya Faces in a Smoking Mirror is a feature-length documentary about Maya cultural and community identity confronting contemporary development, exploitation, and commodification.

Maya society and culture has never been free of outside pressure to change, whether welcomed or imposed. The degree of forced change spiked with the Spanish invasion. The period immediately following the arrival of the Spanish was the most intense, with the destruction of Mayan books and holy places, suppression of cultural practices, and the forced labor of the people. The threat to a coherent view of life and man's place in the cosmos was severely threatened. This invasion continued all through the colonial and postcolonial periods in Chiapas, but always countered with strong, if sometimes silent, resistance.

We believe that the current world situation is imposing change at a rate that compares only with the immediate post-Spanish invasion.

Rapacious exploitation of natural resources (by monoculture, mining, hydroelectric power, tourism, etc.) is pushing people off the land, and these structures are codified in international trade agreements. The same structures are ready to exploit human labor in such institutions as the maquiladoras, mining, corporate agriculture, and tourism, where wages are low and protection to human lives may be loose. An urban, sometimes dispersed environment encourages alienation from the values and traditions of Maya culture.

This documentary looks at the lives and choices of a spectrum of young Maya women and men, primarily but not exclusively from Highland Chiapas. Some are living the "traditional" life on the land as it has long been modified by periodic local or immigrant wage labor to purchase necessities that the milpa cannot begin to satisfy. Others have achieved reputations as artists or musicians, with their art influenced by international styles but rooted in traditional narrative and/or world view, and with a continuing periodic connection to the community of origin. Some have completed university, even postgraduate educations. A couple have been brought up as mestizo, or even gringo, but have decided in young adulthood that they needed to recover their Maya culture. A young man of Chuj origin, but born in Mexico, where his parents had to flee during the Guatemalan massacres of the 1980s, deals with this twice-removed exile through his research and intellectual development. Thus we attempt to show a wide range of ways in which young people of Maya heritage are dealing with increasing exposure and interchange with mass culture.

The documentary has no voiceover or any commentary by non-Maya persons.

One case study stands in for the attempts of distant authorities to impose disrupting structures from above and the various forms of Maya resistance to this, by looking at the failed "Sustainable Rural City" at Santiago el Pinar and the successful resistance to the building of such a city in Chenalhó.

A number of controlling metaphors punctuate the documentary, including the classic Maya concept that the earth is a smoking mirror of the sky. The primary metaphor is corn and the rich development of varieties for niche ecosystems which is represented in Chenalhó alone by at least 20 distinct varieties of corn. This legacy, which represents an insurance against the vulnerability of monocultures, can implicitly be compared with the ways in which our participants find niches for their continued cultural identification and preserve values that we are losing or have long ago lost.

These ever evolving cultures must survive to preserve values at risk of being lost by increasingly homogenized postmodern culture. To do so they must be able to penetrate past the smoking mirror of neo-liberal commodification of everything, resist it, and show us how to do so.