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Q&A with Rafael Garcia, director of ‘Mayan Blue’

POSTED: May 16, 2013 1:00 a.m.
/For Get Out

The underwater city of Samabaj features an cave with stalagmites, stalactites and other captivating formations. Samabaj is underneath Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

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When did you become aware of Samabaj, and how did the film project get launched?

We first became aware of the site of Samabaj in 2007 after visiting the lake Atitlan area on a b-roll trip for a project titled, “Dive the World.” That project would eventually morph into “Mayan Blue” after quickly realizing the scope of the Samabaj discovery. All of the gears were in place for filming DTW, and we knew a significant story could be told at Samabaj; however, it took a redirect in focus and patience for the archeology to unveil the documentary. The size of production grew exponentially as well. All of the photography teams about doubled in size, and the number and quality of the gear jumped. In the end, it would take five years of filming, off and on, to capture the images in “Mayan Blue.”

How long did principal photography last? How long was the underwater portion of the shoot?

The underwater and “topside” photography ran congruently. A normal day consisted of following the archeologists into the water with the dive team and filming their finds above the surface. The expeditions were punctuated by interview and b-roll trips to points around the Mayan world. Principal photography lasted for five years, off and on. We would visit sectors of the Mayan world typically in month-and-a-half bursts of production. These production legs were preceded by a scouting trip to carefully study the area and make whatever arrangements necessary.

Describe the experience of diving in Lake Atitlan and seeing Samabaj for the first time.

The waters of Lake Atitlan are extremely volatile in their visibility. One day the surface is a smooth as glass and crystal blue all the way down to the bottom, then the next day brings heavy chop and green, turbid water. This unpredictability is what makes diving on the site of Samabaj exciting. One of our chief divers, Lawson Barnes, described his first time as, “a mixture of mystery and awe.” For me (Rafael), the moment that stands out clearest is diving above the ceremonial plaza for the first time. As my eyes adjusted and I cleared the eerie green water, before me stood the single most recognizable object on the whole of the site: the standing Stelea and Altar. It is an experience none of us are soon to forget.

Was there a particular day, moment or discovery that stands out as particularly exciting or magical?

Some of the greatest moments of discovery came while maneuvering the sonar imaging equipment over the site. Seeing the island at any kind of distance underwater is impossible due to the size of the site and the visibility of the water. So having the experience of sitting and watching as every pass reveals another view of the site was truly unique. Being able to then go back and scan over an overhead map of the entire island and pick out individual monuments was a really rewarding moment after seeing the site in segments for so long.

You made the (I think) very good choice to not shift focus to the sensational, end-of-the-world mythology. But was it difficult to resist going that direction? If nothing else, the ready made marketing possibilities had to be tempting.

I knew very early on the 2012 direction was the wrong one. As an amateur historian and closet nerd, I knew enough about the Maya going into this project to know the idea of an end-of-the-world event was nonsense. Every reputable archeologist and Mayanist had been saying as much for many years prior to Dec. 21, 2012. We debated as to the possible marketing opportunities briefly, however quickly realized the media was already flooded with 2012 mumbo-jumbo. The benefit, we decided, was in telling an accurate story, one that would outlive the 2012 craze and be a viable project in 2013.

What is the most important thing you hope viewers take away from the film?

My hope is viewers gain insight into the world of archeology and Mayan studies, realizing the truth is always stranger and more fascinating than any fiction. The rise and collapse of the Mayan empires can serve as allegory to our present time. I hope viewers question their own mythologies and ask questions about our very temporal role on this planet, realizing like Samabaj, everything can change in the span of moments.

Is exploration of Samabaj still ongoing? Have there been other discoveries since you wrapped the film?

The archeology at Samabaj is still unfolding. There is much to analyze and review back in Guatemala City. It will be some time before archeologists again slip down to the depths of the Mayan World’s only underwater city.

- Jeff Marker


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