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Gods and Kings cover photo

Gods and Kings 2012

Recommended

Distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, 101 Morse Street, Watertown, MA 02472; 617-926-0491
Produced by Rachel Lears and Elyse Neiman
Directed by Robin Blotnick
DVD, color, 88 min.



Jr. High - General Adult
Anthropology, Latin America, History, International Relations, Guatemala

Date Entered: 09/09/2014

Reviewed by Christopher Lewis, American University Library, American University

From feudal roots to a present steeped in pop culture, Gods and Kings explores the complex history of Guatemala’s indigenous population through the lens of the annual festival of the Highland village of Momostenango.

The festival is an elaborate 15-day ritual of costumed performers that symbolize the history and folktales of the area. Though the younger generations had been losing interest in the traditional dances, an unusual renaissance has occurred. To reinvigorate the event, an acrobatic high wire act was introduced as well as a Mardi Gras/ComicCon-style mashup of political leaders, movie and TV characters, and other pop culture symbols. Imagine Osama Bin Laden, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Fidel Castro dancing alongside Xena the Warrior Princess, Predator, and characters from Avatar, except many of the pop culture figures are recast to symbolize heroes and villains from Guatemala’s myths and history.

The culture of dancing as a means of story-telling among the Maya is well-established and dates to pre-Colombian times. In Momostenango, the festival has its origins in the morality plays that conquistadors used to convert the native population to Christianity. Rather than fall for Conquistador propaganda however, the local populations mutated the plays into an admixture of liberation theology and tricksterism – spinning the stories to reaffirm their traditional identity and beliefs and mock the rulers.

Today the festival consists of four dances that are performed progressively throughout the festival: The Conquest Dance, the story of the Conquistadors; The Dance of the Mexicans, a dance about the Mexican elite who ruled over the Guatemalans; The Deer Dance (AKA the Monkey and Tiger Dance), a dance with an obscure history but the most ritualistic of the four; and finally there is the Disfraz Dance, a recent addition which lampoons the region’s recent past with a variety of political and fictional caricatures.

The meaning of each of the dances is only superficially explained but the filmmaker is adept at placing the village’s festival in the context of the history of the Mayan population of Guatemala. It’s a population that has been exploited and abused by outsiders, beginning with of the conquistadors and reaching its zenith during the 20th Century when the United Fruit Company effectively seized control of the country. A secret agreement made by Guatemala’s government to cede 40% of the country’s land to the company for banana plantations had a devastating and lasting impact on the indigenous population. The Highland economy was transformed from a landscape of self-sufficient farming villages to a workforce of subsistence-level wage earners. In the 1940s, a pro-union land reform movement was crushed by paramilitary units funded by the U.S. This action led to a civil war that was further fueled by anti-communist campaigns waged by the United States. Death Squads ruled the countryside from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Many people disappeared and fear drove thousands more out of the country. This history is now remembered in re-enactments during the festival.

During the Death Squad era, an interesting phenomenon occurred that influenced the Highland culture. Thousands of fleeing Guatemalans made their way to the United States and once there, sent VCRs (and later DVD players) and movies back to their relatives. The clash of Hollywood culture with indigenous Mayan culture made for some curious outcomes. One of them was the adoption of the TV show Kung Fu as a kind of symbolic text about the highlanders’ history as underdogs. Also Chucky, the evil doll from Child’s Play (1988), has been adopted as a local ghost.

The film is not without its lighthearted and amusing moments—the mere idea of a remote village that envisions its heroes and demons in the form of American pop culture icons is more than just a bit bizarre. Yet the film skillfully contextualizes the phenomenon and illustrates how it fits in a centuries-old tradition. This video should be of great interest to anthropology, history, and international relations departments.