In 1980, as a graduate student in film production, I was part of a crew that traveled to Copan, Honduras, to make a short educational movie about the ongoing archaeological excavation. It was an eye-opening experience and it planted the seeds for the kind of filmmaking I ended up doing as a career. We recorded interviews with the archaeologists and shot scenes that helped to elucidate the points they made, including not just the dig itself but the way the local people lived in the same place and conditions as the Maya did more than a thousand years before. I fell in love with the process of analyzing the message and creating sequences that interpret and visualize it.
I was never interested in Hollywood — my dream job was to work at National Geographic — but I love the process of filmmaking, the creative collaboration with a good crew and the technologies of sound and picture recording, and particularly the challenges of unscripted documentary filmmaking, the travel, shooting in difficult locations, interviewing non-actors and getting them comfortable in front of the camera, making a gazillion decisions a day on where to put the camera and how to structure a scene, getting the crew to all pull in the same direction, keeping the end goal in mind but still remaining flexible if disaster strikes. It’s stressful, sometimes backbreaking work and I loved it.
I never got to work for National Geographic but I did have a very satisfying career making corporate image, marketing and public information programs for a lot of high tech companies, with all the the same elements of documentary filmmaking that I fell in love with on that first movie gig in Copan. I couldn’t wait to go back.
We got to the ruins at opening time to avoid the crowds but the crowds were already gathering, including several school groups. We picked up a guide as recommended and walked toward the park entrance, past the gorgeous macaws. We never tire of macaws, and we even have a soft sculpture macaw adorning Escape Velocity to remind us of our time in Central America.
The story of Copan is rich and complex and beyond my ability to summarize adequately. You can read more here and here. We did what you should never do, we raced though the ruins and the museum instead of lingering for days. We just didn’t have the time, but better to be here for a day than not to be here at all.
Our guide Fidel started nearly every sentence with “the archaeologists deciphered….” as he interpreted a significant glyph or recited the successions of the Mayan rulers in the various periods. Within minutes our heads were reeling with too many dates and facts, which Fidel admitted was a common reaction. Research, excavation and reconstruction at this site have been going on for over 150 years and the archaeologists have deciphered many things, apparently at an ever-increasing pace. Luckily the Hondurans have also undertaken serious conservation efforts, protecting the stelae, structures and scupture from the severe weather conditions and too many touchy hands. Many of the more fragile and precious works have been moved to a new museum, with excellent copies marking the original locations.