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While Embrace of the Serpent—Ciro Guerra’s third, incantatory feature film—took the top Directors’ Fortnight prize at Cannes and, among other honors, is the first Colombian film to be nominated for an Oscar (and also the first with an indigenous protagonist), these superlatives are perhaps less intriguing than its upending of the familiar heart-of-darkness jungle narrative. Like a potion, or better yet, like a blast of medicinal “sun’s semen” from a shaman’s snuff pipe, the visionary mode of Amazonian storytelling is here at the helm. Although worlds more solemn and far less abstract, it’s as close as major independent filmmaking will get to, say, the flavor of Juan Downey’s experimental ethnographic video art. Excruciatingly well shot and cast, Embrace doses us with a waking dream of the early twentieth-century Amazon, turning mainstream depictions of the region, and even Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, inside out.
As with Guerra’s previous film, The Wind Journeys (2009)—which is a Western of sorts, replacing the gun-slinging shootout with a piqueria vallenata (something akin to a rap battle, but with dueling accordions)—the Colombian landscape is every bit as expressive as the actors. Both films drink deeply of roadtrip and even buddy-film tropes, and both portray native peoples as our healers, but only Embrace, with its bruising indictment of materialist civilization, comes on like a spirit or a drug.
Andrew Bourne I’ve read that some indigenous peoples of the Amazon have this notion that all the white explorers, colonialists, missionaries, rubber barons, and so forth are, in fact, just incarnations of one entity, recurring again and again in slightly different form over time. So, Theo and Evan [the German ethnologist and American botanist portrayed in the film] are just two more iterations, forty years apart, of this foreign body pushing into the jungle. But I want to ask about you. Do you see yourself somehow in this lineage of outsiders that scout, chronicle, and otherwise interact with the region?
Ciro Guerra I think what you’re alluding to is the myth of Surumbucu, which is basically how the indigenous people refer to their encounter with a German explorer named Schomburgk, then another named [Theodor] Koch-Grünberg. And that’s actually what Koch-Grünberg describes—that they’re always seeing the same person. It’s their idea of a single spirit that can go through different lives, like the same driving force behind different people all throughout time. But, for me, it was just an entry point into the Amazonian way of thinking. Now, do I, or can I, see myself as part of that particular lineage? I don’t know…
I feel closer, if I really try to answer that, to storytellers from all over the world. Storytellers, in many ways, are all one since the beginning of time. I look at the way the “speakers” of the native communities gather their people around the fire and tell stories, and basically filmmakers do the same thing. We gather the people around and tell stories with light and shadow. We’re just using different tools. I feel very connected to voices that come from thousands of years ago. So that’s my lineage, more than that of any explorers.
AB You’ve said this is a native story. To what degree were indigenous people involved in the writing of the script and in the actual production of the film? How did you cede power to them, or share authorship such that it became their film as much as yours?
CG I started with a script that was very concerned with scientific fact, being true to history, and it was, with all things, very clear. Everyday was marked, every location was set, and all the stories were just tremendously clear. But as I started sharing it with the indigenous peoples and discussing it with them, I realized this was doing something of a disservice, that this was not the way the script needed to work. So, it became more and more infused with Amazonian storytelling, with their myths, and then I realized it was no longer important to be accurate. I came to understand that imagination and dreams were as important to them as any fact.
So yeah, the script began to transform, and for a moment there it became quite difficult—because suddenly, after about two years of work, I reached a place where I was completely lost. It had become this labyrinthine thing, and that’s the moment when Jacques Toulemonde came in as co-screenwriter. He had a vision for how to get this script out of the mess I had made of it.
AB Interesting… in that the writing of the script might mirror the action of the film itself. The characters are searching for something quite specific, yakruna [an elusive, hallucinogenic vine], but they’re directionless, lost on the river, and ultimately have to throw away their map and compass to take a more intuitive, visionary approach.
CG (laughter) Yes, that’s true! I hadn’t thought about it like that, but you’re right.
AB Actually, it seems to me that there was a lot of this sort of parallelism—so many scenes running in the film’s two narratives seem to spill forward, into the future, into the production of the film and beyond… or at least that was an effect you achieved, with time as a circle, not a line. Even the fact that most of the film is black and white speaks to this—with the lush colors of the Amazonian jungle traded for something akin to the sort of photos we find in early ethnographic documentation. How did this choice of film stock come about?
CG Well, I was very impressed with these images that the explorers took of the jungle. It was just a completely different Amazon than the one people have in their heads. It’s completely devoid of all the exuberance and exoticism that the tourism industry usually associates with it. When I was there I realized it was not going to be possible to give an accurate portrayal of those colors, nor a portrayal of what those colors mean to the Amazonian people, so I decided to let the audience use their own imaginations. And it’s been very, very interesting—because some viewers have seen colors in the film where there are none. They ask, “Does that sequence have color?” And then, with the one sequence in the film that does have color, people don’t see it for some reason. So audiences become open to other things, become more imaginative. I love that. But yes, beyond that, there are a great many reasons for the black and white. I could speak for hours on it, but I prefer leaving that to the audience to determine why that decision was made and why it works in this manner.
AB Yes, I can’t help but leap to binaries, like good and evil, obviously—how the Western characters mostly bumble, covet, and instigate trouble, while our shaman protagonist is mostly patient, ecologically reverent, and shepherds us toward a greater good. This is a polarized world, one of black and white extremes, if that makes any sense at all.
CG It does, but it doesn’t need to make sense. It’s open. This film is open for people to complete it with their own vision and ideas. Me, I’m still learning by sharing it with audiences. They bring such varied ideas, and I’m constantly discovering new things from them. It’s a film made without being calculated at all, intuitive in every decision.
AB Most certainly, but doesn’t it also pointedly reckon with the history of Colombia, with the Rubber Holocaust, but perhaps on indigenous terms? I’m curious about the film’s reception among them. People living in the states of Vaupés and Amazonas… will they get to see this film? What would they think?
CG They’ve already seen it! We brought the film for screenings in Leticia, and in Vaupés, and in Inírida. In Vaupés it was very special, just a wonderful screening. We managed to turn a maloca, this traditional long house, into a cinema for one night, and hundreds of people came, even from very far away places. They would walk for two days to see this. We had 500 chairs in there, but it wasn’t enough. So, there were many hundreds of people standing there watching it for two hours, and after the film ended they asked to see it all over again, immediately. So we projected it again.
In Inírida—which is the place where we shot the final sequences—when they saw the sacred mountains [Cerros de Mavecure] they just got up and cheered. They were shouting and so happy. It was a very collective emotion. And they feel that it’s a film, overall, that they relate to, that it honors the way they see the world. But for some of them it’s also a very scary film—you know, seeing a jaguar up close is scary to them, or even strange lights going off in the jungle. It has a scary effect, but they really appreciated it.
AB How did you go about doing the casting? It’s incredible, especially Antonio Bolívar Salvador and Nilbio Torres. They just seem so integral to what’s happening in the film. How did you come upon these people?
CG Once we figured out that filming would happen around Vaupés, we started going to different communities and villages, inviting people to be a part of things. The casting directors would take pictures of people, and we would review them to see what sort of interesting characters emerged. Everyone we encountered was enthusiastic. But one day, there was a man—he came to our village near Mitú, the capital, and although everyone loved the idea and was happy to do it, this one guy said, “No. I don’t want to.” His family and friends came up to him saying, “If we’re all going to do it, you should do it too. It’s either all or none.” And again he refused. But his family was so insistent that finally he said, “Alright, alright… but if I do this, I am going to be the star of the film!”
AB (laughter) Oh dear.
CG But there he was—the young Karamakate, Nilbio Torres. It was like an ancient warrior of the past had returned. I never saw anyone quite like him in the whole process. He was such a striking image and had an energy about him, so we invited him, saying, “You’re absolutely right, you’re the star of the film.” He cautiously asked about the story, and we explained it to him, then he told us it was similar to those he has heard passed down from his ancestors.
But I spoke to a lot of elders from the region, and a lot of shamans, payés, men of knowledge, but none of them were on a frequency such that we could work together. I learned a tremendous amount from them—but asking them to act? It seemed like it just couldn’t be possible. And so I started watching everything that had been shot in the Amazon in recent years, which is very little—a few short films, a video, some documentaries. And I saw this film from twenty years ago, and in it there was this person who appeared for like two minutes. And he was such a strong presence that I wrote the name down, thinking maybe I’ll find this guy. And I eventually did. I knocked on his door, Antonio Bolívar came out and I knew he was right, another intuition. It was extremely clear. I’d never seen anyone like him either. His personal story is so close to the story of the character—he’s one of last remaining members of the Ocaina people. There only about sixteen left, and their language is probably going to disappear within a generation. But my problem was that he had a really bad experience in that short film and swore he’d never do anything like it again, because they cheated and mistreated him. We managed to convince him, he came onboard, and went all the way. When these people say they will do something, they do it with an enthusiasm and energy, not looking back and totally selflessly. They’ll not settle for less.
Embrace of the Serpent runs in New York at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza starting February 17, 2016, and in select cities through April.