Animated Aztec Mythology at Santa Fe by Byron Grush

The Five Suns: A Sacred History of Mexico, directed by Patricia Amlin and Preston Arrowweed, was the only animated feature film in competition at the Native Americas International Film Exposition held this August in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The film brings to life creation myths and sacred stories of the Aztec people primarily through cel animation of drawings taken from the pre-Columbian iconography and texts dating from the early post-conquest era. The central story deals with Quetzcoatl and Tezcatlipoca and the creation of heaven and earth. Richly symbolic in imagery and form and as accurate and faithful to myth and ritual as any synthesis of myriad scholarly versions could be, the film works on several levels.

Artistically, Amlin explores movement derived from an understanding of the forms of the ancient glyphs and carvings. You can tell she has immersed herself in a study of the Aztec storytelling traditions and has supplemented her discoveries through contact with many important scholars in the field. The credits of the film list more expert scholars than animators, in fact, but this contributes to the richness of her project. This is not a film of cut paper figures from a Dover book. These are character brought to life AS IF they had been animated by the original artists and craftsmen who built and decorated tombs and pyramids so long ago.

On a societal level, The Five Suns serves to keep alive the myth and bring it to those unfamiliar with it. Just as the Aztec gods sought to set the newly created sun and moon in motion, this film and Amlin's previous film, Popul Vuh, bring to the viewer an opportunity to connect with fundamental ideas about humanity, culture, and the common threads which tie all peoples together. In Mexico, these myths are familiar to most people. Most of us in the United States who are even vaguely aware of them, have probably gotten our information from the "In Search of Ancient Astronauts" syndrome of our popular culture. The importance of this film to instruct and inform can not be underrated.

Patricia Amlin and her animators have managed to stay within the original style of the images and make them move as if the Aztec artists themselves had been the animators. The constrained use of metamorphic animation, underlighting of backgrounds, fast dissolve build-ups, multi-layering, quick cuts, and camera pans, combined with spurts of more traditional character animation (there is even lip sync dialog between characters and a variety of interesting walks) give the complicated (for anglos) story a nicely orchestrated rhythm and flow. The brilliant coloring really communicates the spirit and vitality of the culture. Music composed and performed by Todd Beokelheide completes the illusion that the spirit of ancient ancestors has awakened to tell their tale. Preston Arrowweed's script is often humorous and serves to strengthen the overall appeal of the film. Luis Valdev, (Zoot Suit, La Bamba) is the voice of Quetzcoatl, speaking in English. There will probably be a Spanish version of the film to come. (It is interesting to note that Disney, one of the sponsors of the festival, donated a print of Bambi, dubbed in Arapaho. No Pochahontas prints appeared, however.)

The Native Americas International Film Exposition also screened Popul Vuh: The Creation Myth of the Maya, an earlier animated feature by Patricia Amlin, in which many of the images were taken from pottery. It was wonderful to be able to see this film back to back with 5 Suns, to see the development of the more sophisticated style in the more recent work. I have to say, however, that I enjoyed the earlier film more for its concentration on the drawning of the movement of the figures. There was less underlighting and effects so the animation had to carry the film, and carry it, it did.

The history of the Americas is the history of all of us, contrary to the traditional dogma of the western European invaders. It has been suggested (by Luis Valdez) that the spirit of Quetzcoatl is returning in works such as this. If you watch this film with a clear and receptive mind, emptied of expectations and open to the experience of a different expression of truth, you may be rewarded with a glimpse of what C.G. Jung called the collective unconscious. The myths and this film, speak in a voice which needs to be heard. I think of the veiled bigotry and racism of the current political movement to make English the "official language of America" which has risen in this country. America? Who can call themselves "American"? Perhaps we should make animation the official language of the world.