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The stuff that dreams are made of


APOCALYPTO & the Question of Authenticity

By Haydn Galloway

        with comments by Caitlin Prozonic, Samuel Olsen, Nicholas Alakel, and Karen Haberland


[1] Both Atanarjuat and Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (2006) depict pre-contact civilizations, with Atanarjuat portraying the lives of the Inuits and Apocalypto following the lives of the Maya. The films both have very similar aspects to them, especially the epic chase scenes, but there is one very significant distinguishing factor. Apocalypto was written by a "white" man while Atanarjuat was written, directed, produced, and acted by (except for cinematographer Norman Cohn) a fully Inuit cast and crew. But does this mean that Atanarjuat is a more authentic picture, or is it just as "modern-day" conscious as Apocalypto? (see note below)

[2] Apocalypto supposedly portrays typical pre-contact Mayan culture. For instance, the characters speak in an authentic Mayan dialect that caused many viewers to consider the entire film authentic. However, the authenticity of the film pretty much ends here. Gibson's main images of Mayan culture are blood-thirsty and gory. The extremely violent images of decapitation and the gruesome removal of still beating hearts caused Gibson's directing skills to come under narrow scrutiny by students of Mayan culture. Gibson portrays the Mayan people to be almost psychotic killers, slicing and dicing anyone and everyone they could get their hands on. The climactic scene of the Mayan King and priest carrying out stomach-churning human sacrifices had audiences talking of Apocalypto as the "Mesoamerican Rambo" (Puig). Many outraged students of Mayan culture spoke of how Gibson dishonestly portrayed the Mayans as beastly savages. In fact, it was the Aztecs who were more likely to perform such torture and sacrifice: "The Aztecs are known to have sacrificed large numbers of people, though according to the archaeological record, we are unsure of how many would be sacrificed at one time. There is no data to support that the Maya carried out sacrifice on such a large scale" (Lovgren).

[3] Focusing solely on the savage side of the Mayans, Gibson failed to show the prosperous, educated, cultured side of the Mayan people. Mayans achieved massive advances in mathematics, astronomy, and art, yet Gibson sidelined these images, though co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia offers that "You do see aspects of Mayan culture in the background." However, even the set built for the film also added to the misrepresentation of the Mayan culture. The artwork scenes in the Mayan city are exact replicas of Mayan artwork, but severed heads and bleeding bodies were added by set designers to fit in with the sensational content of the film. Also, Apocalypto supposedly depicts Mayan civilization at its peak, yet the Spanish arrival that occurs at the end of the film was actually some 500 years later, and the Mayan culture had substantially declined before Spanish contact.

[4] In short, Gibson shaped Apocalypto to appeal to his modern audience and to conform to his political agenda. The extreme ahistorical savagery was consciously juxtaposed to the calming images of the Europeans arriving by boat at the end of the film. Gibson's use of "Mayan vs. Mayan" violence shows a culture destroying itself from within and shows it vulnerable to the arriving Spanish, a point made crystal-clear by the film's introductory text: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." Gibson uses his version of the past in Apocalypto to reflect his modern-day ideas of the self-destructing tendency of American society. In his depiction of a culture ruled by a corrupt elite, increasingly resorting to violence, and despoiling the environment, "Gibson saw himself as the author of a powerful warning against what he perceived to be the current decline of the United States" (Kolodny 22). Gibson heavy-handedly manipulated the past to warn about the present (Spence).

[5] In comparison, authenticity was the keynote for Atanarjuat according to Inuit writer Paul Apak:

There are a number of differences between what we are doing and other movies that have been produced regarding our Inuit culture. This movie will be based on an Inuit legend, and also it is all going to be in Inuktitut [language]. And also, all of the actors will have to be Inuk. No Japanese or whoever else who pretend to be Inuit. You know. It will be done the Inuit way. We want things presented in the movie the way they would have happened in real life. That is what we are going to do.

And Atanarjuat has been roundly praised for its authenticity. The story is based on an ancient legend passed down to the modern day through the Inuit oral tradition, and the film is filled with precise images (the soapstone oil lamp, the ulu knife, whalebone runners, a proper igloo) of what Inuit life was like one thousand or so years ago. However, there is one very major change to the legend of Atanarjuat storyline that calls the notion of authenticity into question and yet doesn't seem to attract much critical attention. (see comment by Nicholas Alakel)

[6] In one of the most powerful moments in the film, Atanarjuat proclaims that "the killing stops here," refuses the opportunity for homicidal revenge, makes peace with his evil tormentors, and they are expelled from the community rather than executed. In all the several other extant variants of the story, however, Atanarjuat is by no means the man of peace. In a version by Michel Kupaaq, for instance, Atanarjuat "started to club the men that were in and killing them. . . . he checked for pulses of the ones that were unconscious -- If there were pulses he would club them. . . . He killed all the men as this was revenge for the attempt they made on his life that preceding spring" (Evans 80). And in the version collected by Knud Rasmussen, after killing his tormentors, Atanarjuat then "took the wives of the men he had killed, and returned to his parents house. Two men went with him on the road; they meant him no harm but all the same, when they were about to take leave of them, Aumarzuat killed one of them. He had, as it were, got into the way of killing" (Evans 88).

[7] These endings are extremely different from that of the film and give our hero Atanarjuat a much darker, a much more savage side, especially in the Rasmussen version where he kills wantonly, without reason. Director Zacharias Kunuk recalls that writer Paul Apak "changed that story because now we are in the modern age and because killing doesn't solve anything" (Brown): "Paul Apak talked and we all changed the ending. In the original story when they are fighting inside the ice igloo, he [Atanarjuat] smashed his [Oki's] head. Paul felt that that doesn't make any sense. That is going to go on and on and on. We also knew that they used to just send people away instead of killing them and that was a better ending so we chose that. He even asked the elders, is it all right to change the end? I remember one of the elders answering him, ‘We are storytellers'" (Kunuk). (see comment by Caitlin Prozonic)

[8] A better ending? To an authentic film? And storytellers, not historians? Kunuk, says interviewer DeNeen L. Brown, wanted "to get beneath the stereotype of Inuit as all-innocent, all-good, all-smiling people who eat raw meat. The film . . . reveals the good and the ugly." Now a climactic image of Atanarjuat "clobbering" Oki and his gang with a club fashioned from a caribou antler, as described by Herve Paniaq, fits that purpose more than the film's image of the morally restrained hero (Evans 87). The Isuma group "decided on a positive ending," says Michael Evans, "because they wanted to emphasize the importance of harmony and working together, a vital Inuit value honed over millennia of cooperation in small bands immersed in a harsh environment." The film "is as close as you get to an Inuit story," Kunuk says, "This is as real as it gets." A look at the ending shows precisely just what close means in an avowedly historical film and precisely how the reel almost unavoidably makes the real. (see comment by Samuel Olsen)

(Note: Jason Shubow's article on this point and Michael Robert Evans' discussion of it in his 2010 book came to our attention after Haydn's essay was written. We hope a future contributor will provide additional commentary incorporating their ideas.)


Caitlin Prozonic 1/23/11

The ending to Atanarjuat gives us a message of non-violence and forgiveness. Although the ending of this film does not match with any of the traditional endings for the original legend, the non-violence portrayed is not completely off-base or fictional. Zunuk actually has stated that exiling offenders was a common practice for the Inuit people: "We also knew that they [the Inuits] used to just send people away instead of killing them and that was a better ending so we chose that." In the film, there is a definite lack of authenticity when it comes to the ending of the film versus the original legend. However, the conclusion is authentic in the respect that the Inuits did banish people from their tribes instead of killing them when they commit wrongdoings. In some ways, it is possible that this could be a more fitting punishment for the villains of the movie as per Inuit practices. Could it be that this altered ending is actually more authentic than the original? It seems that this ending of non-violence and banishment represents the historic culture of the Inuit people more than the fierce killings that end the legend that has been passed down through the Inuit people. So, when we discuss the authenticity of this movie, should we focus on the authenticity that it has relating to the actual tale itself or the reality of the Inuit culture, even if it contradicts the myth that has been brought down by the Inuit people? What is "authenticity" in the case of this film? (see comment by Karen Haberland)

Samuel Olsen 1/24/11

I feel as though authenticity is sticking to the story when the story is no longer helping the author get his message across. For the directors and producers to spend such a large amount of time talking about how they would like the movie to aid in the destruction of Inuit stereotypes and how they will portray the Inuit exactly as they were, the higher-ups would have had to follow the plot lines of the legend more closely than they did. The ending to an authentic movie should be just as authentic as the rest of the film. The ending is what ties the entire movie together and to learn that it was altered, even while technically keeping true to Inuit tradition, made me cringe a little bit inside, not only because I felt I was lied to by the same people who claimed to be educating me but also because the violence stands out against the white lie and gets magnified by it. If the director had simply told his people's fable the way it had happened, I think I would have been much less frightened by their ancient folk tales than by their modern need to lie to the viewer about their past. I get the sense that the Inuit are trying to hide or make up for a piece of their cultural genome that I watched the movie to unearth. The entirety of the movie lost its luster and my trust as soon as I learned that the ending was fabricated in the same way the Mel Gibson's Apocalypto lost its credibility when the viewer learns that he severely modified the Mayan culture.

Karen Haberland 1/24/11

I agree that we must define how we look at authenticity in this film. The writer of Atanarjuat, Paul Apak, stated that "we want things presented in the movie the way they would have happened in real life." He wanted people to see the real culture, stripped of stereotypes and foreign intrusion. But which does he see as authentic? If the brutality of the legend doesn't fit with the culture, then how can we accept the legend as true? On the other hand, every retelling of the legend features the brutal killing of Oki. If, like the elders say, "we are all storytellers," then why would that idea have remained until now if the Inuits value harmony? If they had truly wanted to depict Atanarjuat as the peaceful man who saves the town from evil, they could have changed the story long ago. So, we have to ask, is Apak's version not as true as it appears to be? Is he is just another storyteller?

Nicholas Alakel 1/24/11

In addition to considering why the filmmakers choose to alter the ending of the traditionally bloody tale of Atanarjuat, it is important to consider why this particular story was chosen as a vehicle for the representation of Inuit culture in the first place. Given the Inuit's rich oral traditional it is likely that many other tales and legends could have been chosen for the film. Is it important that the film's storyline be based upon an actual Inuit legend? Could the film have had the same effect and impact if the filmmakers took it upon themselves to write an original story while still accurately depicting the Inuit way of life and identity? More important than maintaining the authenticity of the story is accurately representing the Inuit way of life and the nature of the Inuit people. The story of Atanarjuat serves as a likely vehicle for this representation given its focus on both familial relationships and the struggle for survival. It is able to convey both the sense of community so crucial to the Inuit way of life and the conflicts that can arise in the midst of such a community. The ending of the legend may have come into conflict with the image the filmmakers sought to convey, prompting them to alter it. However, this does not mean that the remainder of the story that helped them to depict the life of the Inuit should be regarded as inauthentic. After all, the actions of one man should not characterize an entire society, and the end of one story should not characterize a culture.


Brown, DeNeen L. "The Direction of True North; For His Film of an Inuit Parable, Zacharias Kunuk Stayed Close to Home." Washington Post 1 August 2002: C01.

Evans, Michael Robert. "Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner." Isuma: Inuit Video Art. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008.

Kolodny, Annette. "Tropic Trappings in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and Joseph Nicolar's The Life and Traditions of the Red Man." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 32.1 (2008): 21-34.

Kunuk, Zacharias, "The Public Art of Storytelling" http://www.com.umontreal.ca/spry/old/spry-kz-lec.html

Lovgren, Stefan. "Apocalypto Tortures the Facts, Experts Say." National Geographic News 8 December 2006.

Puig, Claudia. "Apocalypto' soaks the screen in gore." USA Today Film Review 7 December 2006.

Spence, Stephen. "Revelations of Mel." American Indian Quarterly 31 (2006).