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Breaking the Maya Code
Breaking the Maya Code
Actors: Richard Agurcia, Michael Coe, CCH Pounder
Director: David Lebrun
Genres: Educational, Documentary
NR     2008     1hr 56min

For a people to lose their history is a tragedy; to recover it, a miracle. — Breaking the Maya Code is the story of the 200-year struggle to unlock the secrets of the world's last major undeciphered writing system. Based on...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Richard Agurcia, Michael Coe, CCH Pounder
Director: David Lebrun
Genres: Educational, Documentary
Sub-Genres: Educational, History
Studio: First Run Features
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen
DVD Release Date: 09/16/2008
Original Release Date: 01/01/2007
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/2007
Release Year: 2008
Run Time: 1hr 56min
Screens: Color,Widescreen
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 4
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Stunning documentary on the Maya glyphs
shaftesbury | USA | 11/12/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"If you saw Cracking the Maya Code on PBS's NOVA series, this is the original for that episode. The NOVA producers had the filmmaker condense this full-length documentary (Breaking the Maya Code) into a one-hour broadcast. Both are stunning, but the full-length documentary gives you even more detail--something you will want. The documentary is assisted by state-of-the-art graphics which allow specific parts of the glyph carvings to light up when they are being discussed, as if the narrator were touching the surface of the carving. By the end of the documentary, when you get to see the deciphered glyphs re-introduced to the Maya themselves, you are almost cheering for a blow against the conquistadores and de Landa--who (almost!) eliminated the culture. The main accomplishment of the film is to lay out the story of how the glyphs were finally unlocked--with many frustrating roadblocks along the way (the key that opened the treasure trove was briefly tried twice before, but stopped each time). The story of the breaking of the glyphs also serves to show how interdisciplinarity is sometimes a necessity, not just a luxury: the ultimate unraveling required contributions from school teachers, amateur archaeologists, artists, art teachers, linguists, photographers, and mathematicians. In addition, one sees how cultural forces shape and distort readings of the glyphs and interpretations of the Maya culture. Simply fascinating!"
A Detective Story Spanning 500 Years - And Then Solved
Gerard D. Launay | Berkeley, California | 10/15/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"If you asked most persons to identify the greatest intellectual achievements of the 20th century, you would probably hear about space exploration, the discovery of Egyptian treasures, or uncovering the structure of DNA. After watching this film, I would add cracking the Mayan Code belongs in the top 5. There are literally thousands of Maya ruins with strange pictorial glyphs - but unlike the Egyptian hieroglyphs, scholars had no Rosetta Stone to help translate them. How then to decipher the ancient language?

This film is not a study of the Maya but a study of the personalities and thinkers who tried to interpret the Mayan picture glyphs. The story embraces a 500 year period. We begin with Bishop de Landa - a 15th century Spanish priest who asked the Mayan scribes to translate the Mayan sounds into western letters...a librarian in Germany who came across one of the few books still preserved of Mayan writing lost in the artist with no special academic training who copied and studied the glyphs in Palenque...a Russian soldier who made the intellectual breakthrough that some of the Mayan writing was not like Chinese (pictures of ideas) but syllabic symbols...a photographer who photographed Mayan pottery for 30 years...and a 12 year old American genius who started publishing detailed scholarly papers on the language of the ancient Mayas. The string of personalities is endlessly fascinating. This is a beautifully photographed tribute to a group of unknown thinkers who followed their obsession and step by step deciphered the most difficult code possible.

If you enjoy this film, the director is also responsible for the exciting movie entitled "Proteus"...another exceptional documentary about scientific discovery. Check it out."
This is how science really works
Utah Blaine | Somewhere on Trexalon in District 268 | 05/10/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)

"If you've ever wondered how the scientific community really attacks a problem, watch this video. There are occasional brilliant insights, but this shows the painstaking, behind the scenes work done by an array of professional (and amateur) researchers that lead up to that one big leap. Einstein didn't work in a vacuum, many researchers spent decades amassing the work that Einstein would ultimately tie together to develop relativity. So it is in some ways with the breaking of the Maya code. The Mayans left an incredibly detailed account of their history and culture right in front of us, and for centuries we hadn't a clue as to what it meant. A mystery that started with the Spanish conquest of central America several centuries ago, and only resolved (well, mostly resolved) in the past few decades. In this DVD, you'll watch how generations of researchers slowly put together bits and pieces of the puzzle. You'll listen to accounts of young researchers as they recall the high points of key conferences and key moments, as well as the arduous months in the jungles carefully photographing and drawing the Mayan symbols on temples, stelae, and other antiquities. The symbols are also reproduced graphically so that the viewer can see how the written Mayan language all fits together. You probably won't be reading the symbols on the temple walls by the end of the DVD, but you'll be able to recognize the symbols and how they all fit together! There are so many fascinating details presented in this outstanding documentary. One of the most famous, most knowledgeable Mayan scholars was completely wrong on one key aspect of the translation, and probably held up progress for decades, but quickly and graciously relented when shown convincingly that he was wrong. One thing that puzzled linguists for years about the Mayan language was that they were unsure whether is was an alphabetic language (like English) or a purely symbolic language (like Chinese). The alphabetic languages have several dozen characters, and symbolic languages have hundreds or thousands. The Mayan language had about 80 or so. The great breakthrough came when it was realized that some of the characters had the same meaning and that there were only 30 or 40 distinct characters - the language was alphabetic. Bottom line - great documentary - a no-brainer if you're even remotely into this sort of this."
Rediscovery of a lost civilization!
JAG 2.0 | IN United States | 06/11/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This video is the story of a civilization whose enigmatic glyphs puzzled the world for centuries and the long, often frustrating efforts by priests, renaissance men, scholars and gifted amateurs to decifer the words left by them in stone.

The video does an excellent job of chronicling the people who added to our knowledge of the Maya in fits and starts over the centuries. It shows the breaking of the Maya written language, in fits and starts, beginning with the deciferment of their system of mathematics. The video shows the many arguments whether the glyphs were phonetic, syllabic or represented entire ideas or concepts.

I was surprised by the number of breakthroughs that were made not by scholars but by gifted amateurs who were able to bring a fresh perspective to the process. It was a story of individual insights and creative collaboration assisted by the Xerox machine!

Visually, the video was very well done and showed the remains of what was a sophisticated civilization. The dvd does an excellent job of visually introducing the viewer to the glyphs, showing how they are used to make sentences as well as the artistic lattitude the ancient scribes had to express thoughts. I was struck by the amazing artistic talent of those ancient Maya scribes as they recorded royal geneologies, history, diplomacy and a multitude of other things people record for posterity.

The dvd contains interviews with those who played major roles in the breaking of the code (in the case of those who are deceased, their thoughts are transmitted to us through their writings) and adds greatly to the viewer's understanding of the circumstances of their contributions as well as their work from their own words.

This is an excellent documentary that was well made, informative, entertaining and was able to convey the passion of researchers to solve the puzzle of the Maya glyphs that the story of the Maya could be known to us. I reccomend this with five stars!"