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Amazonian Trip: 'Embrace of the Serpent,' Colombia's First Oscar-Nominated Film

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Still from "Embrace of the Serpent."

Colombian film “Embrace of the Serpent” is an otherworldly journey into the Amazon jungle, taking viewers on an elegiac and hallucinatory voyage that flows alongside other great river tales, from the books of Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad, to films like Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” 

Rendered in vivid black and white, much like the silver and obsidian tones of Edward S. Curtis’ photographs of 1800s native Americans, director Ciro Guerra’s rapturously-shot, narrative film is a rumination on cultural erasure, memory, and the lingering aftermath of colonialism. Shot on-site in the jungles of Colombia, with a cast and crew almost entirely composed of indigenous people, it’s the first Colombian film that has been nominated for an Academy Award. 

“Embrace of the Serpent” interweaves two timelines separated by 40 years: one tracing an expedition of early 20th century German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (played by Jan Bijvoet), while another follows American biologist Richard Evans Schultes (played by Los Angeles actor, Brionne Davis), the so-called “father of ethnobotany,” who is retreading his predecessor’s jungle trek. The scientists are led by Karamakate, a lonesome shaman and last remaining member of his tribe, who helps them search for a sacred medicinal plant used by indigenous people of the Amazon. The sagely spirit guide is played by two indigenous actors, Nilbio Torres, as the younger Karamakate, and Antonio Bolívar Salvador, who plays the shaman in his older years. The explorers traverse a river on a thin canoe, encountering residents of the rainforest and experiencing the encroaching effects of rubber plantations and missionaries. 

The film is loosely based on the real writings of Koch-Grünberg and the pharmacological research of Schultes -- whose 1979 book “The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers” inspired counterculture artists and writers to explore the spiritual qualities of shamanistic plants. “The Amazon is the big unknown for us,” Guerra says, “so I found the diaries of the explorers who were the first ones to go into the Amazon in the 20th century. It was still uncharted area, and I couldn’t believe that this story had never been told before. It was so fascinating that the story was exciting and heartbreaking, riveting, and it was an opportunity to bring the audience into a place both physical but also spiritual and mental.” 

While the film has subtle psychedelia touchstones of filmmakers like Alejandro Jodorowsky and Stanley Kubrick, Guerra says that the film is a commemoration to the original explorers whose works inspired future generations, and a reflection of indigenous cultures perched on the precipice of colonization. 

Artbound recently sat down with Guerra and discussed the challenges of filming in the Amazon, how he cast the local actors and crew, and how the jungle represents the last great unknown. 

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Ciro Guerra shooting a scene for "Embrace of the Serpent."

What was your relationship to the Amazon while growing up in Colombia ?

It was the big unknown, it was half of our country. You knew that there were indigenous communities but you didn't know who they were and how they viewed the world. We had a very basic conception of them. It was a very conflicted time in Colombia. We had the sense that it was a dangerous place. There were illegal groups. Both guerrilla and drug trafficking groups. People were afraid of it and society had turned its back on it completely. It is half of your country but you are completely disconnected from it. That was one of the main motivations, to build bridges between two very different worlds. 

You’ve been making films since you were in your early 20s, but now your film is the first Colombian film ever nominated for an Oscar. Where were you when you heard the news?

We were invited by Caracol Televisión, the main backer of the film and TV channel in Colombia, and they invited me the crew, and the producers of the new film to have breakfast and watch the announcement. When it came, it was a big surprise, we weren't expecting it. We were not considered a favorite, but when it came it was a big surprise and joy. We were screaming and jumping around, and hugging each other. We got a call from the president congratulating us. It was a great moment for Colombian cinema. 

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Still from "Embrace of the Serpent."

What drew you to the stories of these two scientists?

Making a film in the Amazon was a lifelong dream of mine. The Amazon is the big unknown for us, so I found the diaries of the explorers who were the first ones to go into the Amazon in the 20th century. It was still uncharted area, and I couldn’t believe that this story had never been told before. It was so fascinating that the story was exciting and heartbreaking, riveting, and it was an opportunity to bring the audience into a place both physical but also spiritual and mental. Once we discovered the story, we couldn’t stop thinking about it and we had to do it. 

Throughout history there have been river stories, from the River Styx in Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy" to "Apocalypse Now." Why do you think people are so interested in stories about rivers?

Rivers are an important part of human history. Every major civilization and every major city developed next to a river and they have played such an important part in the way that we have evolved as a species. 

For the Amazonian people, they see the river as a gift -- a gift of life. If the rivers are running it is because life is existing. If the rivers dry out it is the biggest tragedy imaginable, or when rivers are poisoned for example. Many cultures see rivers as metaphors for existence or the passing of time. The perpetual motion is a reflection of the way our minds are always working and our lives are always moving. 

How did you cast the indigenous actors?

All the indigenous people in the film are played by real people in the Amazon. We wanted the film to be very authentic in its portrayal, so we went there and invited people to be a part of the film, both in front of and behind the camera. It was important that [their story] was shared with the world. We were looking for people who had strong personal stories and strong connection to the stories. Once we found these wonderful people we started to train them to be actors -- for about three months prior to the production. I was worried at first because they had no training or background in cinema, or theater, or television, so it could be difficult. But I learned that it was much easier than I thought, because they don’t have this tradition of cinema, but they have a tradition of oral storytelling. That gives them so many abilities, including the most important one: the ability to listen. It’s hard to find an actor who can listen for real.

How did you teach the indigenous languages to the Western actors?

The biggest challenge was for the European and American actors, Jan Bijvoet from Belgium and Brionne Davis from Los Angeles, and they accepted a huge challenge, which was not only to come to Colombia to do a film in the Amazon, but also to do it in indigenous languages. We sent the script to them phonetically, and they just learned their words and rephrased it without understanding. They were thinking in one language but acting in another one. It was a huge challenge, it’s the biggest “ask” I’ve ever presented to an actor. And they were just up for it. It was a testament to their rigor and passion. 

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Still from "Embrace of the Serpent."

What were some of the challenges of shooting in the jungle?

There's nothing easy about shooting in the jungle. It’s a hugely demanding environment. It was a hugely demanding shoot. You had to bring everything there, all the facilities, everything you need to make a film. We had no artificial lighting, so we used the natural light. You had to select a crew that was up for an adventure, who were warriors -- spiritual warriors. 

We had to work with the jungle; we weren’t trying to bring the logic of a foreign production into this place. We were respectful. We felt that the jungle was helping us too. It was allowing us to make this movie. We were prepared for the worst, because you have heard the stories of these shootings that get very complicated. We didn't have any accidents, or diseases. The weather was great for the shooting. We felt that we had created a special energy with the crew and cast that allowed for the film to be something special. 

What kind of research did you do on pharmacology?

We wanted to approach the relationship that Amazonian people have with sacred plants and its powers. We realized for them it is the basis for a spiritual connection to nature. They are very worried that modern society tends to degrate this relationship and tries to make it about fun because this is something that is sacred to them. That is the basis of their spirituality in the same way that meditation is the basis for their spirituality or atoning for sins can be the basis for another spirituality. For them it is an expression for a deep connection to nature. They believe that plants are higher beings that can teach you a lot about yourself. What do you think when you look at the forest? Do you see the spirits of your ancestors, the spirits that wander? Do you see wood that you can use to build tables and build fires? What do you see when you look at every plant and every animal? It is something that is very special to them and I think we can learn a lot from them. 

What did you learn about spirituality after you finished the film?

You spend several years living in an environment sharing with people who really view the world in a really different way, in every way possible. When you’re there so long, when you go back to our world, everything appears different, it seems small, and claustrophobic. You understand that many things that you take for granted about our society, are just concepts and can be changed. You can live without them. There are so many ways to be human, and ways to exist, once you’re there, you learn to appreciate that there’s not just one or two ways to exist as a society, but there are many ways. 

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What kind of threats are there to the life of the Amazon or to the indigenous people?

The main threat is illegal mining and illegal projects of exploitation. On the one hand, it is the evolution that has a relationship to the Amazon. First, it was rubber, then it was coca used for drug dealing, now it is mining. 

There are many young people who are not interested in keeping the traditional knowledge alive. There are many people who are seduced by the capitalist lifestyle. They do not want to live in the traditional indigenous way. Many elders are feeling abandoned because young people don't want to keep these traditions alive. But it also generates a great conflict for young people because once they try to enter modern society they realize they don’t belong. They feel like they don't belong in modern society or in the traditional society. This has lead many of the young people to [commit] suicide. It is a huge cultural crisis, a huge crisis of identity. When they are disconnected from the earth and from their ancestors it creates a huge void. 

The film itself seems to be a look at colonialism. What are some of the effects of colonialism that are still manifested today?

It is a very complex situation because the colonialist invasion happened centuries ago. We are in the aftermath. Our society is a creation of a violent mix of the indigenous community and all that came from outside. It was not a part of a dialogue, it was a violent clash where one culture tries to topple another one or obliterate another one. Many of our conflicts today are coming from that moment in the past, the unresolved past. 

How does film act as a way to heal that wound?

I think that is something that we are leaving for the future. Hopefully it can serve not only as entertainment but also as a guide to be a more peaceful, connected, and empathetic society. 

Top image: Still from "Embrace of the Serpent."

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