The current Mel Gibson “Apocalypto” controversy is not only about Mr. Gibson’s vulgar, racist and sexist remarks to a Cal State Northridge assistant professor of Central American Studies. Also at issue are racist materials published by the Cal State Northridge Department of Cinema and Television Arts to celebrate Mr. Gibson’s appearance.
In a handout bearing the name Cinamatheque.csun.edu and distributed as the official brochure for the event, Mel Gibson, interviewed by John Hutchins, claims that the Mayans performed “20,000 cardiectomies” in four days, chewed people’s fingers off, once kept someone alive “for nine years cutting pieces off of him,” and “were able to take out all your entrails, cauterize you and keep you alive.” Such allegations defy the imagination, not to mention the fundamentals of biology. Yet Gibson claims to know they are undeniably true, “because the Europeans were there-they watched an Aztec festival.”
Our anti-Semitic, alcoholic, I-don’t-know-the-difference-between-an-Aztec-and-a-Mayan filmmaker friend doesn’t seem capable of understanding that the Europeans were bent on conquering the Americas and were hardly neutral when they made such “observations.” Mr. Gibson’s intolerant religious ideology, which rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council-to the point where he has publicly stated that his own wife is hell-bound because she is an Anglican- aligns well with these fantasies of the Spanish inquisition. Yet a more fundamental concern in the controversy over both “Apocalypto” and “Passion of the Christ” is the extent to which mainstream institutions such as universities, churches and the media, are willing to embrace his violent and blatantly degrading depictions of non-Christian peoples as a worthy art form, and even as a potentially accurate recounting of history.
CSUN, as an institution of higher learning in a democratic, diverse society, has some soul-searching to do over the fact that a department of its university published and distributed materials that indeed rise to the level of hate propaganda. I personally reported the Cinematheque.csun.edu brochure to the office of the president of the university on the morning of March 23, the day after the event, pointing out that the Department of Cinema and Television Arts published the interview without any questioning of its racist content.
That same day I e-mailed a scanned copy to Mr. John Chandler, Director of the University’s Public Relation’s Office. I spoke with Mr. Chandler at length that afternoon, specifically pointing out the degrading content of both the brochure and the film itself.
Yet despite the material’s clear inappropriateness, the university’s response, which I did not receive until Wednesday, April 3, simply states, “The university regrets that you and others have been offended by some of the content in the program booklet, which was produced by our Cinema and Television Arts Department ? Be assured that any opinions expressed by Mr. Gibson, either at the event or in printed materials relating to it, are his alone and do not represent the views and/or position of California State University, Northridge? While freedom of expression sometimes causes discomfort and offense, this university supports the rights of all sides of such issues to express their views through respectful, civil discourse.” As such, the university has refused to retract the racist propaganda printed and distributed by its own employees, or to apologize to the Mayan community for the offensive acts of the university itself.
In a continent whose history is marred by the genocide of its original inhabitants, slavery and discrimination, our educational institutions have a duty to raise the consciousness of their student bodies in order to steer our culture in the direction of harmony and mutual respect. CSUN has taken certain steps in that direction, such as the establishment of a Central American Studies Department.
Nonetheless, the publication of the Cinematheque brochure creates fertile ground for the development of racist attitudes at the university, and is intimidating to students and community members who are threatened by such a trend. The university needs to counteract this unfortunate incident by bringing the offensiveness of the materials to the attention of the Cinema and Television Arts Department, as well as by creating forums where representatives of the Mayan community can educate the student body, faculty, and administrators regarding their history, culture and worldview. Furthermore, it behooves the university and the academic community to defend Dr. Alicia Estrada, the victim of Mr. Gibson’s expletive, in her endeavors to have our society rethink its anti-indigenous assumptions.
Finally, as a state university, acts of racism by Cal State Northridge are potential evidence of governmental acts of racism in U.S. society. This incident has therefore been reported to the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination as an example of institutional racism.
Madeline Newman Rios Lead Interpreter Indian Treaty Council