by Rob Nilsson, Director, Children Born of the Water
We went down the Usumacinta River in a long wooden boat of uncertain vintage. One of those vintages was not modern. They’d been plying the river in these boats for a long time, fading green and red paint, open air canopies to keep off the sun, one outboard motor at the back, a river cigarette boat, clearly contraband friendly, perhaps a conveyor of a few illegal Cuban cigars. But there was romance in it for me. Where did it come from? Well of course from my reading of Linda Schele’s books, and those of David Friedel, Mary Miller and other modern Mayan experts who lept on the new epigraphic discoveries as Tatiana Proskouriakoff and Yuri Knorozov led the way in cracking the larger mysteries of the Mayan glyphs.
But it also came from my purely personal feelings about Coba, the Yucatan site near Tulum, which David Schickele inspired me to see maybe 35 years ago and motivated my return many times over the years. I don’t know what it is about the Mayans. Part of it is that my adventures in their country began on the Caribbean and I’ve always loved the Yucatan beaches which inspired work on screenplays, poems, and just keeping the blood adventures alive. And every time I go down there I climb Nohuc Mul, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan, maybe as a measure of my ongoing physical abilities, and lack of them. But why have I felt that in the most illogical way, they had something to tell me… about myself?
Only since Enrique Lima turned me onto Historia del Caribe have I understood the full extent of the 16th Century horrors of the Spanish Conquest. But now that I know more about that, and have read a few books about the Mayans, ranging from Bishop de Landa’s 16th century Yucatan self promotional screed to James O’Kon’s book on traditional Mayan technology, I have a project, CHILDREN BORN OF THE WATER, in which I want to contain and expand on that original passion. And when I can tie personal enthusiasm into a project and study it with a film in mind, I’m on my best behavior.
So, when I met Howard Teich and the two of us decided to team up on this project, based on a treatment I wrote 20 years ago, his background in mythology and our mutual interest in the Mayans, I have been trying to imagine the fictional lives of Ekab, an artisan who worked on the Bonampak Murals in 788 AD and Itzel, the daughter of a shaman, possibly from Calakmul, rescued by Ekab from a slaving party. They escape into the forest, heading east to the Caribbean to encounter their 21st Century counterparts, James a disillusioned Post Modern New York artist and Cameron his girl friend, a Middle East war correspondent.
Although there are many million Mayans still living in Yucatan, Chiapas, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras today, few know much about the highborn Lords and Ladies of the Pyramid cities of the ancient Maya, the families they came from, the alliances they created, maintained and betrayed. The jungles have destroyed much evidence of how they lived and managed to rule, at times enjoying the enthusiasm of their subjects, but, also facing resistance from the largely illiterate Mayan farmers, workers and trades people they controlled in the years between 900 BC and 900 AD when the major cities were abandoned. Then in the 16th Century the Spanish Conquest destroyed Mayan culture, burned their books, repressed their religion, imposed Catholicism, and stole their resources creating a social hybrid born of two compulsive societies which, in some of their special cruelties, deserved each other. How then understand Ekab and Itzel today?
I have read some books, and over the years visited Coba, Tulum, Chitzen Itza, Uzmal, Palenque and two of the cities from the Southern Lowlands, Bonampak and Yaxchilan and had the tremendous fortune of traveling to those last three on this trip with Howard and Carol Karasik who has been in cahoots with the highly specialized and seriously brilliant tribe of ethnographers, anthropologists, archeologists and epipgraphers who ushered in a new period of knowledge initiated by understanding of the mysterious Mayan glyphs.
So what did I learn on this trip to the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City, a long day exploring Palenque with Carol, and our Conradian trip down the river to Yaxchilan which helps me know my Mayan characters better? Breaking through the haze is a simple thought. Much of what we do today, was done by those in the past, but with vastly different starting points, technologies, political and social contexts. Because genetically we’re human. Were then. Not changed much in the meantime. So I know that the more I see that they were like us in important ways, the better I’m going to be able to delineate the differences. Obvious enough, but a starting point.
One thing seems certain. The Mayans, I’m talking about the ruling classes now, were not the ideal, peaceful, superior star gazing group of astronomers imagined by J. Eric Thompson. They were certainly not pacific but certainly clannish, prone to warfare for fame and advantage to clans, lineages and city states. An extremely driven people. Their art tells us that. It is filled with teeming detail. There is no free space in it. Peace and calm are driven out by a need to exclaim, proclaim, to explain, to justify their cosmology and to support royal ideology to impress the people with their magical, God-like status.
I believe that in most peasant cultures overt rebellion against authority is rare. But the bitching and moaning and gossiping and carrying on in relatively small populations has always been there in all known cultures. Even when it’s banned, the old women sitting, forgotten in the corners of the kitchens are morose with criticism, spoken or implied. Everybody worships the king and many worshippers are filled with a secret rancor about the ways he’s not what they think he should be. Not to be contrarian in that way is not to be like most humans I know.