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When Ciro Guerra premiered his third feature, “Embrace of the Serpent,” at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, he couldn’t have predicted its success. The black-and-white drama unfolds in the Amazon across two eras — 1909 and 1940 — as a pair of explorers encounter the fading cultures embedded in the heart of the jungle. By turns poetic, ominous and filled with intrigue, the movie is complex meditation on documenting hidden worlds. Following its Cannes premiere, the movie found U.S. distribution with Oscilloscope Laboratories and eventually garnered an Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film. In January, it screened at Sundance.
For this week’s Springboard column, Guerra reflected on his unique focus for the film and how its popularity has impacted his career.
What drove me to the film was the curiosity for this world that was half of the country. It was like the dark side of our past, which only very few people know about. It was all these different communities, but it’s not like they’re similar. Each has its own language, its own culture, its own mythology.
I first saw the Amazon through the eyes of the explorers. When you go to the real Amazon today, you realize that there is very little that remains. But the Amazon is a completely different place today. Many of the cultures that they wrote about are now gone.
My previous two films were extremely personal. They were talking about personal experiences — family things that are very close to me — so I just wanted to get away from that and go into the unknown, and invite the viewer to the journey. This film is just my country.
We decided that the film was meant to be made with the communities of the Amazon. So we weren’t just going to bring the logic of a foreign production to the place. We wanted to be very respectful of the place and try to make a production inside its logic. So we approached the people there. We explained what we wanted to do and what it was about. They were very enthusiastic and very supportive, so that became part of the film. The film was respectful of the jungle. They gave us their guidance and their spiritual protection. We really had to ask the jungle for permission to shoot there.
Sometimes, during the shoot, it would rain for 50 hours straight. But the indigenous people really guided us through the production. So a special energy was created that allowed us to make the film and we had no deaths, no accidents, none of what we were prepared for actually happened. The jungle was helping us to make the film. For example, it would only rain when we stopped for lunch. It would rain for one hour, then stop and it was gone. We were prepared for the worst, but something really special happened: The jungle was actually giving us gifts.
This film is not something I can replicate again. It was a big chance, so it could have gone wrong in so many ways. We knew from the beginning that there was something you could do when you’re young, and when there are some very special circumstances around you, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I would prefer to burn the road behind me.
I had no idea how big the Oscar nomination for the film would be. The film is back in Colombian cinemas, and it has had a very successful month. It’s just crazy. So many distribution doors have opened for the film around the world, where it’s usually impossible to find them for a South American film. It’s great that people are enthusiastic about the film — and about Colombian cinema in general. For me, it’s a bit like getting hit by a bus, but in a good way.
My main interest is making films in Colombia, but I’m open to working in the United States, more out of curiosity than anything else. It’s very difficult to get films made here, so we’ll see. But for me, it would be like a parallel thing. I hope to be able to continue making films in Colombia.
Colombia is a country that is diverse and rich and full of original stories. We can draw our stories from life. We don’t have to draw them from cinema. I think that nowadays, movies are drawing from themselves too much, and not enough from life. Life in Colombia is just full of opportunity, full of young people, and there’s a lot of creative energy going on. It’s just full of stories everywhere you look.
For the first time, part of the government supports the production. There’s a whole generation of Colombian filmmakers who have the tools to develop and grow. I really like the films by Oscar Ruiz Navia, who made “Crab Trap” and “Los Hongos.” César Augusto Acevedo made “Land and Shade,” which was an extremely beautiful film. There’s a generation of people working there who have a lot of potential.