“That vase represents the rape of the past”: Looted Mayan gods at the RAI Film Fest

So the other week I had the pleasure of attending the 14th Royal Anthropological Institute’s International Festival of Ethnographic Film in Bristol. I was only able to pop along for the final two days (thesis joys), but that was just enough to get the gist of the overall shindig. At first the RAI Film Fest appears chiefly academic in flavour with its tradition of research based ethnographic screenings, but there’s also space here for commercial and international features (for example The Look Of Silence opened the festival). This mash up was a nice and welcome surprise: seeing the low-budget research documentaries juxtaposed against industry commissioned features really highlights the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches and platforms (is it for research, the classroom, television, the cinema, or can it cross-over?) and reminds us that ultimately a good story will trump high production values any day.

Q&A with Ed Owles (The Auction House: A Tale of Two Brothers) at the 14th RAI Film Festival
Q&A with Ed Owles (the lovely director of The Auction House: A Tale of Two Brothers) at the 14th RAI Film Festival. (Photo: K Rogers).

The schedule was pretty packed so in the end I mostly stuck to one stream, the “Material Culture and Archaeology Film Prize Screenings.” Even so, that was still a stack of films, so instead of detailing them in one long rambling post, I’m going share them with you one by one – so check back for more RAI Film Fest reviews over the coming days.

Easily the best film in the archaeology stream was Dance of the Maize God by American filmmaker David Lebrun. And so it should be given Lebrun’s evident skill and long term dedication to anthropologically informed documentary filmmaking about Indigenous American cultures (he’s been at this game since the 1960s and seems the be an audience favourite in the European archaeology film festival circuit).

Promotional Still: digger lifting looted vase from trench (re-enactment).
Promotional Still: digger lifting looted vase from trench (re-enactment).

Dance of the Maize God is a thoughtful exploration into the world of looted Mayan vases. Local villagers, ex-looters, archaeologists, dealers and museum curators each weigh in as equal speakers, telling the story of how these vases came to be discovered, traded, displayed, rejected, hidden, and re-assessed by various stakeholders. The title of this blog entry comes from one of the statements an archaeologist makes in the film, and admittedly, while comparing the looting of objects with the act of rape is a problematic analogy to say the least, it’s a statement that does express a genuine sentiment that’s passionately and regularly raised in international heritage. Looting causes irreversible damage that cannot be undone, even if the artefacts are recovered. And so, Dance of the Maize God asks, can we ever really know what the beautiful Mayan artwork on the looted vases means? Is an artefact taken out of its archaeological context really so (scientifically) worthless? Is it wrong to conduct research on looted objects? Could doing so fuel further looting? What are the responsibilities of archaeologists who hire and train local workers to identify artefacts and sites, but provide only short term employment to these vulnerable communities? Also, what actually happens to the looted artefacts that are rejected by museums and galleries?

Promotional Still: Two views of Maya vase, King with Shaker.
Promotional Still: two views of Mayan vase  depicting King with shaker.

This is a tangled story told with sophistication that both a public and professional archaeological audience can readily enjoy. Lebrun competently marries an account of Mayan mythology and culture (ancient and modern) with the ethical debates about museum policies and the micro-economics of looting. The latter is kind of funny and revealing actually, for example, the initial monetary value of vases here is designated according to whether the depicted characters are sitting, standing, gesturing, etc – an interesting take on artefact categorisation! There’s also a good news story here too, with the skills of former looters recognised and re-purposed through sustainable employment as heritage and environmental custodians, because after all, who would know how to read the landscape and counter future looters better than a former looter? And while state-run museums and galleries may reject artefacts without provenance, in this case we see that those artefacts can still find a home and be valued for their cultural significance and educational use in a local community owned museum.

Promotional Still: Lebrun filming interviews in the jungle.
Promotional Still: Lebrun filming interviews in the jungle.

My main quibble with Dance of the Maize God is that I would have liked to hear more opinions from Hispanic archaeologists and Mayan stakeholders, as there was the usual dominance of english speaking white (and male) archaeologists. But to be fair, this seems to frequently be a problem in archaeology documentaries, and probably reflects the fact that the discipline is still very white and very male at the higher levels (especially in fieldwork), rather than a failure on the part of the filmmakers to find more representative speakers. And yes, in terms of storytelling there is the odd blurry re-enactment and experts interviewed in front of book cases and fire places that might make you roll your eyes, but there’s substance and style here too. In particular I liked the use of minimal animation and thoughtful cinematography to highlight the artworks on the vases and the stories they depict. For example, in one instance, the clever use a jump-cut sequence really does bring the Maize God to life, dancing on plates to the beat of a drum, no animation needed, just pure, skilled editing.

Promotional Still: Mayan plate showing the Maize God dancing (this needs to be a gif!)

Ultimately Dance of the Maize God is the sort of archaeology documentary we need more of: less focus on archaeological method (that’s what lectures and textbooks are for) and more on the social and political context of archaeology, the ethics and practice of the discipline itself through sensitive but investigative documentary filmmaking.

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