Embrace of the Serpent (2015) tells the story of Karamakate, the last remaining warrior-shaman of his Amazonian tribe who encounters two scientist-explorers, decades apart, looking for the sacred Yakruna plant. In the two intercut episodes, the first set in 1909 and the second in 1940, we witness the deep damage inflicted by colonial powers on native Amazonian cultures during the rubber boom of 1879 - 1912, as the shaman and scientists try to come to mutual understanding on their search for the rare plant. The basic events of the film — winner of Cannes Director’s Fortnight CIACE Art Cinema Award and Colombia's nominee for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award — were inspired by the scientific journals of two real-life explorers of the Amazon, German Theodor Koch-Grünberg and American Richard Evans Schultes. But for director Ciro Guerra, the most crucial choice of the narrative is its indigineous protagonist, Karamakate, and the storytelling's grounding in Karamakate's point of view.
“Making a film in the Amazon was a life-long dream of mine,” Guerra told ScreenPrism. While the Amazon makes up the southern part of his country, he noted that the place is still little known or understood and almost never represented from an insider's perspective on film. As Guerra began reading about the region, an anthropologist on the film who had studied and spent time in the jungle suggested the explorers' journals. “I started reading them, and there was a fascinating story there that had never been told,” Guerra said. At the same time, he clarified that the film should be seen as a work of fiction. While those journals are essentially scientific texts with anthropological value, the film is structured and told as fiction.
Ciro Guerra on the set of Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
“The only things that are real in the film, that really happened, are the craziest ones,” Guerra said. “Only the weirdest parts of the story are the ones that are completely true.” The sequence of the Messiah, for example—in which a white man forces a group of indigenous people to worship him as the returned Jesus Christ—is based on a real man “who arrived in that quarter of Colombia and proceeded in the late 19th century to claim [he was] the living Messiah. He was way crazier than what you see in the film. He had to have 2,000 followers come from very far away places to give him gifts. He got so out of control that in the end the Brazilian army had to come in and remove him. You cannot make this stuff up. It's beyond imagination.” In Embrace of the Serpent, after Karamakate drugs the Messiah with a hallucinogen in order to escape, the cult leader exclaims to his followers, “Eat me. Eat the body of the son of God!” The strange sight of his urging his believers to gnaw on his limbs takes on a powerful irony due to an earlier scene in the 1909 episode wherein Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and younger Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) encounter an abusive missionary who claims in an official plague to rescue native children from cannibalism. (The native distrust of the Christian idea of eating Christ's body through Communion also reminds us that the core beliefs of any culture appear irrational when viewed from the outside.) In the later episode, older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvador) declares that the region has become “the worst of both worlds.”
Both stories involve the search for the Yakruna, a plant with special healing powers that is sacred to Karamakate’s people and sought after by colonialists for its usefulness in making rubber. “The plant is a fictional plant,” Guerra said. “It's, however, based on real plants. The indigenous people asked us to not use the name of real plants, real rituals, to modify them — it's not something that you can learn about just from watching a film. You should go through a process to learn about these things. But we weren't interested in the superficial, scientific truth. We were interested in the deeper truths of the relationship between them and plants, and their rituals. So we have no problem using fictional names, fictionalizing details.”
Older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvador) in Embrace of the Serpent (2015), Photo by Andres Barrientos / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
The character of Karamakate is likewise a fictionalized amalgamation meant to represent a deeper truth rather than a specific tribe or individual. “He's a combination of many people, several people,” Guerra said. “Some of them appear in the journals. Some of them I met personally. He's a character that combines many different experiences.” He added that Karamakate’s tribe is also created to combine a number of cultures: “To give them the name of a real culture is something that I don't have the right to do.” Using fiction, Guerra felt he could avoid co-opting the voice or compromising the sacred knowledge of any one tribe while expressing a general yet important point of view.
Embrace of the Serpent is shot on 35mm film in black-and-white, a choice that simultaneously recalls photographs from the explorers' travels and signals that we are being transported into an unfamiliar place. Visually, Guerra wanted to create a universe onscreen that helped us see through Karamakate’s eyes and question our automatic ways of looking. “All the cinematographic elements, we used them to create an altered perspective on life,” Guerra said. The goal was to take us “to another way of understanding the world. So you see a world that you can recognize, but everything is slightly off. Everything is slightly different. From the sound design to the black-and-white to … the way the film is told and structured, everything is taking you to a different logic. It's a way of bringing an audience into a different perspective on the world.”
In choosing to tell the story in two different times, through the visits of two different explorers, Guerra also hoped to emphasize the cyclical view of time central to many indigenous cultures. “Time to them is not a line, as we see it in the West, but a series of multiple universes happening simultaneously,” Guerra said in the film’s production notes. “It is a concept that has been referred to as ‘time without time’ or ‘space without space.’ I thought it connected with the stories of the explorers, who wrote about how one of them came to the Amazon following the footsteps of another explorer before him, and when he would encounter the same indigenous tribe, he would find that the previous explorer had been turned into myth. To the natives, it was always the same man, the same spirit, visiting them over and over again. This idea of a single life, a single experience, lived through the bodies of several men... gave us a perspective of the indigenous way of thinking, but also connected with the viewer who could understand these men who come from our world, and through them, we could slowly begin to see the vision of the world of Karamakate.”
According to the film’s production notes, Embrace of the Serpent is “the first Colombian film to feature an indigenous protagonist and to be told from his perspective.” With a seven-week shoot in the jungles of Vaupés, it is also one of few fiction films to be shot in the Colombian Amazon — the first in over 30 years — and the crew came from across Peru, Venezuela, México, and various parts of Colombia, including members of the native Ocaina, Huitoto, Tikuna, Cubeo, Yurutí, Tukano, Siriano, Karapano and Desano tribes of Vaupés.
The crew also called on a “payé,” or local shaman, to perform traditional ceremonies asking for the jungle’s protection during the shoot. Salvador, who plays the older Karamakate, is one of the last survivors of the Ocaina people and acted as an interpreter for speakers of the Tikuna, Cubeo and Huitoto languages. In the film’s production notes, Salvador said Embrace of the Serpent is “a film that shows the Amazon, the lungs of the world, the greater purifying filter and the most valuable of indigenous cultures.”
Nilbio Torres on the set of Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
Guerra told ScreenPrism that the experience of shooting in the jungle is “difficult to describe. We were lucky that we were able to do the film together with the indigenous people. They were our guides, and they taught us a lot about respecting the place and working together with the place, asking the place for permission, and they gave us their spiritual protection. So we were prepared for a shoot that was meant to be difficult, and we were prepared for the worst, but none of that happened. There were no accidents, no diseases. We saw all kinds of animals, but no one was hurt. In the end, it became a very satisfying, spiritual experience for us and the crew.”
The film opens with a quote from Koch-Gruünberg's 1907 journal describing his time in the jungle: “the display I witnessed in those enchanted hours was such, that I find it impossible to describe in a language that allows others to understand its beauty and splendor; all I know is that, like all those who have shed the thick veil that blinded them, when I came back to my senses, I had become another man.”
Guerra said that the shooting experience in the jungle was likewise transformative for him and the crew. “Coming back from there was very strange,” he said. “You learn to see the world in a different way. Once you do that, all the stuff that you're used to doesn't appear the same ever again.”
Guerra lamented that Amazonian warrior-shamans like Karamakate no longer exist in the modern world in the same way they once did, and much of that knowledge has been lost. “I feel that we’ve turned our backs on this knowledge and this way of understanding the world. It’s so underestimated, and yet so fundamental,” Guerra said in the production notes. “It is related to life, generations, natural cycles; it really is a gigantic wall of knowledge that you can only admire and maybe try to scratch its surface. The only way to learn it is by living it, and living it for many, many years. We can only hope that this film sparks some curiosity in the viewers: a desire to learn, respect, and protect this knowledge which I think is invaluable for the modern world. It is... a wisdom that has answers to many of the questions that people today have: from how to achieve balance with nature, making the best use of its resources without ravaging them, and looking for harmony not only between man and nature, but between all the different ways of being human that exist. Reaching this equilibrium is a way to achieve happiness—a type of happiness that the current political and social systems are not capable of offering.”
At the same time, Guerra told ScreenPrism that there is some cause for optimism in the Colombian Amazon. “There was something important that happened [about] 30 years ago,” he said. “The Colombian Amazon were given ownership over their land by the government, so they now own their land, and they have the decision on its future. That has been a big boost in their lives because people are now thriving who at one point were about to disappear. There are still many challenges, especially from the illegal mining, illegal logging and drug trafficking — they represent threats to the communities. But overall, these are people who live very healthy, fulfilling, happy lives with a lot of peace.”
Now being viewed and honored all over the globe, Embrace of the Serpent has a unique power to bring the indigenous cultures of the Amazonians to life for new audiences and encourage respect for these cultures' ways of seeing and understanding the world.
A land the size of a whole continent, yet untold. Unseen by our own cinema.
That Amazon is lost now.
In the cinema, it can live again.
— Ciro Guerra, from his Director's Statement for Embrace of the Serpent