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Reel Life: in the hut of a Mayan shaman



Filmmaker Peter Thompson and anthropologist William Hanks met each other swimming in Lakeview's Gill Park pool in 1986. Four years and thousands of laps later, they ended up in side-by-side hammocks on the edge of the jungle in Mexico's Yucatan. Their quarters, an eight-by-ten-foot mud hut shared with a Maya family of ten, required some good coping skills. "I think it was our years swimming together," Hanks says, "that helped us get along so well there. By swimming over a long period with someone, you really get attuned to a person, when he needs more space and when he needs you to shut up." Thankfully Thompson, a professor of photography at Columbia College, and Hanks, a professor at the University of Chicago, rarely felt the need to shut up. Their discussions in the pool led to a three-year--and counting--collaboration on an extraordinary documentary film exploring the life and work of an 84-year-old Yucatec Mayan shaman named Don Chabo.

Hanks, one of the world's leading authorities on Mayan languages and shamanism, began studying Don Chabo in 1977. The shaman, who lives outside the city of Merida, is regularly called on by neighbors to perform healings and exorcisms. Other local shamans tout their skills in the market, but Don Chabo insists on absolute poverty, which he believes keeps him in touch with the spirits who empower him. Though Hanks never calls himself a shaman, Don Chabo has enlisted the anthropologist as his sole apprentice. In 1984, when Don Chabo was hospitalized with what doctors said was terminal liver disease, Hanks borrowed money to fly to Mexico to be at his side. There he performed a healing ritual on his teacher, and Don Chabo recovered.

Hanks's closeness to his subject is unusual among anthropologists, who typically plant themselves in a culture as observers, not full participants. Before the film was made, Hanks himself had begun to feel that his entanglement with his subject--he is godfather to two children in Don Chabo's extended family--was dulling his observational abilities. "One reason I was interested in doing a film," he says, "is so that I could see things anew. There is so much I now take for granted." Hanks thought that Thompson might help him regain his perspective.

But when Thompson first suggested the film, Hanks balked. Other filmmakers had approached him before, but the anthropologist had resisted doing what he calls "a normal ethnographic film," one in which the shaman's practices--rain dances, the preparation of herbal medicines, the cures--would have been portrayed as mysterious and exotic. Shamans have been a favorite subject of anthropologists since the discipline's beginnings in the 19th century. The standard justification for studying shamans is that they offer a concentrated view of the cosmological and ritual systems of the culture they work in. Hanks didn't want to assist in portraying the shaman as a folkloric museum piece, "the misty-eyed classic Maya which always fascinates the public," he says, "because of the mystery of pyramids and the so-called disappearance of the Maya." Hanks is more interested in how the life and work of Don Chabo are integrated into his community, a Mayan community which is neither dead nor removed from the cultural influences of the world at large.

As a means of persuasion Thompson presented the anthropologist a copy of his film Universal Hotel, a documentary about victims of medical experiments in the Dachau concentration camp during World War II. The work began as a straight historical documentary, but evolved into an exploration of the uncertainty of historical knowledge, as Thompson discovered that his archival sources were unreliable; even information as simple as the dates on photographs could be enormously misleading. Much of the film concerns Thompson's difficulties reconstructing the facts. (His film is now part of the Dachau archives and is frequently shown at the camp to visiting scholars.)

Thompson also gave Hanks his film Universal Citizen, about a Dachau survivor who now works as a smuggler in the Peten jungle of Guatemala. It begins with Thompson's frustrated negotiations with the smuggler, who doesn't want to be identified. Thompson agrees to show him only at a distance, and as the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Thompson cannot learn much about him. Ultimately Thompson fails even to discern what it is he smuggles.

Hanks was hooked. "I was riveted by Thompson's ability to search and understand," he says. "Universal Hotel was the best exploration of what research is about I had ever seen. In many ways it reflected what I was going through in the Yucatan: the absence of evidence, how a new glimpse at something changes everything. The horror and humanity of trying to learn about his subject came together brilliantly." He was also impressed by how Thompson had uncovered the same themes in the Central American jungle. "Peter, I thought, was a person who would not turn Don Chabo into folklore and was someone from whom I could learn a new way of seeing the work I was doing. I wanted that."

Early on Thompson abandoned plans to film in the community and decided to restrict his film to Don Chabo's small, crowded hut, focusing tightly on communal concerns as they were expressed to the shaman. In such close quarters it's hard to retain a romantic vision of Mayans. Some come in Coca-Cola T-shirts to ask Don Chabo for cures, good luck, and revenge; others talk about the American sitcoms they watched the night before. The camera also captured deceptions: One woman entreats Don Chabo to inflict a curse on a neighbor who beat her. The shaman had always maintained to Hanks and Thompson that he would never use his magic to harm someone, but his response to the woman leaves doubts. For all the love and spirituality Don Chabo, his family, Hanks, and visitors bring into the hut, there are also good measures of pettiness, abuse, disease, mental illness, and alcoholism.

Capturing the household on film required some ingenious camera work. Thompson, concerned that he was missing action while his camera focused on one spot, asked a Columbia College colleague, Jno Cook, a sculptor and camera designer, to rig special equipment for the hut. Cook devised a time-lapse camera, a camera capable of shooting 360 degrees of action all at once, and a hidden camera. The resultant footage is often disjointed or contorted, but it does embrace the flurry of activity in the hut. It is especially interesting to watch the reactions of bystanders as Don Chabo works on a visitor. Some are rapt and others are profoundly bored.

Monday evening, February 15, at 6 PM, Peter Thompson and Jno Cook will discuss the movie, Views From the Altar of the Jaguar Spokesman, and show some clips from the three-hour film at the Arts Club, 109 E. Ontario. The talk is free, but reservations are required. For more information call 787-3997.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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