Filmmaker Juan Mora Catlett: The Universalist

"Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."
-- Writer Tim O'Brien

Image:Luz Montero

Mora Catlett believes in the transformative power of film.

Is the Mexican film director Juan Mora Catlett suing Mel Gibson for plagiarism? If you read the postings on the Internet the answer is, "Yes."

Mora, sitting in a screening room at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográphica where he teaches in Mexico City, gives his head a shake and emits a wry chuckle. "No. I'm not even interested in suing. I just don't want people to think that we are copying Hollywood, when Hollywood is copying us."

What's interesting about this hullabaloo is how it came about. The "how" reveals a philosophical rift between one filmmaker who's a Hollywood kingpin and another who works outside this commercial hierarchy, whose motives are primarily cultural and artistic.

Likely, you have heard of Mel Gibson's latest movie, Apocalypto which opened in Mexico on January 19. Gibson made the film for $40,000,000 USD and during its first weekend in US and European theaters it set box office records.

Apart from the fact that the well-muscled actors speak their lines in Yukatek Maya, it's a rather typical Hollywood chase movie: Will the hero escape the decadent, city-Maya captors and return to his pillaged village in time to save his wife and children from drowning in the hole where they've been hiding from the bad guys?

It's also probable that you won't have heard of Juan Mora's two feature length films, Return to Aztlán (Retorno a Aztlán) and Eréndira the Indomitable (Eréndira la indomable). Released in 1991, the former is based on Aztec legend and history and tells the story of struggle for power between Aztec warriors and priests, precipitated by a devastating drought. Eréndira, which will be in Mexico City theaters on March 2, relates a Purépecha legend (the Purépecha are the indigenous people of Michoacán) of a young woman who steals a horse from the Spaniards and fights to preserve her culture against that of the invaders.

Mora's actors, like Gibson's, speak their lines in pre-Columbian language. But the familiar narrative of Gibson's movie makes Apocalypto's characters easily accessible to a Western audience.