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Foreign-Language Oscar Nominee ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ Filmed on the Amazon in 35 mm

Foreign-Language Oscar Nominee 'Embrace of the Serpent' Filmed on the Amazon in 35 mm

Colombia’s Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent” debuted at Cannes in Director’s Fortnight, received an Indie Spirit nomination for Best International Film, and will screen in the Sundance Spotlight selection before Oscilloscope takes it to U.S. theaters on February 17.

READ MORE: “Oscar Nominations 2016 Snubs and Surprises, Stats, and Winner Picks (Analysis)”

I first met director Ciro Guerra at a dinner during the Cartagena Film Festival this past spring. His elegantly shot 2009 sophomore film “The Wind Journeys” played film festivals. So after he showed me some stunning black-and-white jungle footage of “The Embrace of the Serpent” on his laptop, I was not surprised when the film tracking the relationship of a surviving Amazon shaman and two generations of scientific explorers from the West soon became a hit on the international festival circuit.

Guerra was able to get backing for this unusual feature during a time of burgeoning growth in the Colombian film industry. Back in 2003, the government passed a tax incentive to boost local production. By 2014 Colombian production was up from next to nothing to 28 films including five documentaries and 12 co-productions, boosted by an Ibero-American pact with Brazil, Spain, Mexico, and Portugal among other Latin American countries. 

READ MORE: Why Hollywood is Discovering Colombia

“This was the first of all my films to show on the circuit and find an audience,” he told me during a phone interview. “When I started with our first film, there really was no Colombian industry and there hadn’t been any of our films playing on the international circuit for a long time. Making my first film was difficult but it was also good that there was a lot of curiosity for a film coming out of Colombia. We had been really far behind Argentina or Mexico or Brazil, which were strong industries at the time. Thankfully shortly after the film law passed, with a new set of tools and support for filmmakers, a new generation of Colombian film started to emerge and rise over the last 10 years, similar to Chile and Peru.”

Guerro used old-fashioned technology to shoot the film in 35 mm. “There’s nothing like it,” he said. “Video is good for artificial lighting and urban stories, but I don’t trust the perfection of the video image. For the portrayal of nature and natural light, film is irreplaceable.”

The filmmaker was inspired by images of the explorers in black-and-white Daguerreotype photographs. “When I saw them I found them very special, it’s was an Amazon different from what you have seen in advertising and tourism, devoid of exuberance and exoticism. Also you cannot capture the scope of the Amazon on film or any medium, it’s so vast. The indigenous people have 50 different words for what we call green, so by taking that away, I hoped to trigger the imagination of the audience. You don’t see the colors but you can imagine them. It’s an imagined Amazon, not the real Amazon. It’s an interpretation.”

The film is based on the true journals of several explorers. “These adventurers left everything behind, their families and societies, their homes,” said Guerra. “They were going into uncharted territory looking for knowledge. I reacted strongly to that. In ways when you make a film you leave everything behind and take a leap into the unknown. I always wanted to do a film in  the Amazon. When I came up with the journals, I thought, ‘Here’s an extraordinary story that hadn’t been told.'”

During the difficult development of the script, Guerra decided to bring in the perspective of the local indigenous communities. “At the beginning I was very concerned about ethnographic and historic fact,” he said. “But for the indigenous communities, dream and imagination are just as important to them. I thought it would make the film special to tell it from their point-of-view, make them the protagonists, which was something that had never been done. By doing that we had to enter their frame of mind, and it brings to the story the coolest Amazonian storytelling structure.”

He merged the mystical with facts and history. “I was always interested in the structure of myth,” he said. “Western myths, especially Greek, have always been a source of inspiration to me. That mythical quality of storytelling allows a movie to be a personal reorganizing of the world.” For over two and a half years Guerra was completely lost in this exotic maze, which he found “difficult to understand,” he said. “If I go straight into Amazonian mythology and storytelling its incomprehensible for some. The challenge was how to make it accessible for an audience, how to bring out complicated issues in a very simple, straightforward way.” His co-writer Jacques Toulemonde Vidal gave invaluable support.

Casting was key and finding the shaman was crucial. The filmmakers went around to the indigenous communities and invited people to participate in the film, explaining what they wanted to do, asking permission to shoot in places sacred to them. The people understood that the film was historically important, so they allowed the casting director to take pictures. In one community everyone took photos happily. “But one guy, he was not going to do it,” said Guerra. “They said, ‘We all did it, you have to do, it’s all or no one.’ He said, ‘No I’m not going to do it,’ but his family and friends insisted, so he said, ‘All all right, if I do it I’m going to be the star of the film!’ When we looked at the picture, he was so unbelievable, like you see in the film. He seemed like a warrior like the shamans of the past you only read about, come back to life. I was blown away, I explained what I wanted, to tell the story of my elders, how important it is that the world hears it. We talked to the elders. No one could come so close to acting in a film so far away from our mentality.”

Guerra looked at the films shot on the Amazon and found that very little had been done, mostly shorts and documentaries and videos. “I saw a short film from 25 years ago,” he said. “There was this man on the film for two minutes, with presence, such strength. He captured my attention and I took the name and started asking around about him. “Do you know him?” He was one of the last of his people; there are 16 people left who speak that language. But he had a very bad experience on the short film and said he’d never do it again. But he knew what a camera was, a crew, how to shoot, he had experience, he was also very rooted in his indigenous culture, but he’d had contact with theater and TV and acting. They have an oral storytelling tradition that is important to them; they have a built-in ability to listen, for real. Very few actors have that. When an actor has it he’s halfway there. Turning them into characters wasn’t so difficult, no complaints.  He jumped into it with enthusiasm and innocence in the best way, as the elder Karamakate at 73 years old. He’s strong as an ox.”

The shooting was also difficult logistically. Guerra spent time traveling through Colombia looking for a place where the film could be made. “It’s difficult to find jungle like the one you see in the movie,” he said, “because much of the rain forest has been lost to farming and agriculture and cattle, even tourism and commerce has an impact.” The filmmakers finally found a place near the border of Colombia and Brazil where you could arrive by plane and traverse the river.

They brought back to life an abandoned hydro-electric plant on the junction of two strong rivers. While the whole project was five years in the making, they spent three months living in the place and took 7 weeks to shoot, without dailies. “We had weeklies,” said Guerra. “More like monthlies. I didn’t get to see a frame of what we had shot until three weeks in, we were working blind. The lab said, ‘the material is good,’ so we could breathe. We only had two takes, because everything was shot on film. That means that every shot and every take becomes sacred and brings the whole crew and cast and everyone into such focus that usually the first take was pretty good. Every shot was prepared.”

“It felt like it was planned for a long time,” said Guerra, “in order to make it work. When I jumped into it, I built a hole to pass through and jumped into it. I realized the hole was too small. But I had no choice. You had to keep going, to push yourself to the other side. At the beginning of the film I said, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be impossible, it’s so difficult, so demanding.’ Everything had to be perfect in order to work in away that never happens, because in films you usually have accidents and delays and unexpected disputations and problems. So it seemed impossible that we were able to finish on time and on budget. We had no leverage of a Hollywood production, that was not a choice. We didn’t have reshoots. We had one small window of opportunity and that was it. Every little problem became a gigantic problem on the Amazon, but we didn’t have these problems. Everything went so smoothly, surprisingly.”

The filmmakers decided in the beginning not to bring the logic of foreign production into the Amazon “and try to fight the jungle,” said Guerra. “We used the native communities who know how to live there and understand the place, they guided us into making the production respectful and have as little impact as possible on the place. We did spiritual protection for the crew. It’s like asking permission from the jungle to do the film, explaining why it was important. It worked beautifully: we had no disease, no attacks, saw some animals, some bugs about 30 centimeters flying around, insects and spiders with human faces, serpents swimming in the water. But nothing happened, we had no problem with that, and also the weather collaborated with us.”

Editing was demanding for Guerra but “the whole process was flowing with ease, the hard part was behind us, we had to make the best of it.” Initially Colombian theaters didn’t want to play a film in black and white, a movie about indigenous people, but it was the biggest Colombian success ever on the limited circuit, playing 11 weeks to full houses and sell-out crowds, and the film sold to other countries as well.  “The film struck a chord with people,” he said. “We are interested in the spiritual and we are giving them that in a world that has diminished the importance of the spiritual.”

Next up: Guerra has been signed by the Paradigm agency. He’s been developing since last year a project set to shoot in Colombia in 2016. “Juanita,” set in the northern desert, is part genre movie. “It’s ‘100 Years of Solitude’ meets with ‘The Godfather,”” he said. “Indigenous people became gangsters; it’s based on an origin story of the drug trade in Colombia, which was marijuana in the 60s. Some financing is in place. It’s one story we haven’t told, the best story, set in the 60s and 70s. The women are the strongest characters, they’re gangsters in a matriarchal society. We’ll think about casting it next year for 2018 release.”

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