Breaking the Maya Code

I’m not a Mayanist, but maybe this means I’m more — rather than less — competent to endorse David Gruber’s LeBrun’s documentary Breaking The Maya Code. I read Michael Coe’s book of the same name years ago a few years back and enjoyed it, and the movie is even better — wonderful, in fact. If you have even a drop of geeky epigrapher in you, then you’ll love the interviews with well-known names dripping with enthusiasm over syllabaries. Even if you are not, the film does a great job of walking the viewer through a pretty detailed understanding of how Maya glyphs work. Along the way you get a pretty decent over view of classical Mayan culture and history as well.

What I liked best about the documentary beside its depth and elegance was the fact that it began with contemporary Mayan communities and discussed the history of colonialism they’d lived through as a segue to early Spanish explorers and the origins of Western attempts to understand Mayan culture. The movie then closes with indigenous communities working with researchers to teach the next generation of adorable Mayan children how to read and write glyphs, which is both very cute and a sterling example of how not to treat Mayans if they were ‘extinct’. Its rare in ‘ancient civilization’ documentaries to get this sort intelligent, responsible reportage.

The score by Yuval Ron is good too. Its a bit too long to show in class, but is streaming on Netflix, so it is not that hard to get ahold of so… enjoy!

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

6 thoughts on “Breaking the Maya Code

  1. I’m not a Mayanist either, but I have way more than just a drop of geeky epigrapher in me. The wall to the right of me is covered in a huge chart of Mayan syllabograms and a bunch of selected logograms. Right next to that, Kawi script, Javanese, Akkadian, Baybayin, even Rongo Rongo. Bit of a futile hobby, but nonetheless…

    I like Michael Coe’s work generally. His overview of his subject in The Maya (Thames and Hudson) made exactly the same point as the documentary – that the Maya are not extinct, that simplistic ideas about the Maya “decline” do not necessarily follow from the data, and so on. It’s certainly good to see such accurate work in a world where popular perceptions of the Maya revolve around the 2012 nonsense.

  2. Not a Mayanist, either, but someone who did a few summers of fieldwork on a site in western Belize, I third the happiness at seeing a general audience documentary that treats Maya culture as an ongoing concern, and gives a good basic overview of the epigraphy.

  3. Hi all. I am a Mayanist and am delighted others are getting to know more about the Maya (ancient to contemporary) from this documentary. Just to clarify– you have the name of the filmmaker wrong. It is David LeBrun. His film company is Night Fire Films (http://www.nightfirefilms.org/). David and his colleagues worked many years to make this documentary.

  4. The documentary is really good as is Coe’s book with the same name. However, I do have some problems with his book The Maya. It has been revised and updated many times now (seven editions) and some “colonialism” still remains in it (however, I have not seen the latest editions). I think a completely new book should be written.instead that does not treat the Maya from the traditional culture historical perspective that Coe represent.

  5. Thanks Megan — I’m not sure how I made that mistake. I’ve corrected it.

    One other thing I like about the film is that spends about :30 saying “here is a graphic explaining the Mayan calendar. Its complicated… sooo… moving on now….”

  6. I teach a one semester high school intro to Anthro course. I am also an education consultant and selection committee member for the Boulder Int’l Film Festival. I evaluated this film last year for the festival and loved it. Unfortunately the committee as a whole, did not.

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