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‘Embrace of the Serpent’ Dir. Ciro Guerra on Indigenous Knowledge & the Amazon in Black-and-White

'Embrace of the Serpent' Dir. Ciro Guerra on Indigenous Knowledge & the Amazon in Black-and-White

Emerging from the collision between the ravaging colonial
powers and the native population, the history of Latin America is marked by the
constant struggle between these cultural forces. One sought to conquer and
prevail violently, while the other fought not be vanished in their own land. In
the majestically ambitious Colombian stunner “Embrace of the Serpent,” the
evolving effects of this encounter are observed through the events that two
Western explorers – in two different time periods – witnessed during their
travels in the Amazon.

Director Ciro Guerra took their first-hand accounts to
ground his black-and-white masterpiece as close as possible in the historical
facts; however, the film is fantastically wrapped in a mystical aura that is at
once revelatory, perplexing, emotionally stimulating, and spellbinding. It’s
like looking at the world for the first time after experiencing an epiphany
induced by an intangible and unquantifiable source of wisdom. By focusing on
these infinitely profound truths about life, which the indigenous people of his
homeland have managed to grasp via millennia of a connection with the natural
world, Guerra constructs a vision that is at the crossroads between Malick and
Herzog and yet unquestionably his own.

Discussing the intricacies of this magnificent cinematic
achievement with Guerra and one of the stars of the film, Brionne Davis, one
becomes immediately aware of the magnitude of such undertaking. From Guerra’s
painstaking path to strive for authenticity by casting indigenous actors to
English-speaking taking on the challenge of learning the right pronunciation of
region’s native languages to honor them on screen, “Embrace of the Serpent” is a work that defies the limits between history and legend with a dreamlike quality very few filmmakers would dare to attempt.

CA: “Embrace of the Serpent” is a stunning look at colonialism and the clash between Western worldviews and the traditional philosophies used by indigenous people to understand their environment. When thinking about the film and its themes, two opposing words come to mind: savagery and knowledge. These concepts become interchangeable in the context this story about explorer’s realizing that there is wisdom beyond what they know. What’s your perception of these ideas in relation to the film?

Ciro Guerra: The
film portrays what happened in history. It’s a turning point. Before the events
that you see in the film the indigenous people of the world were only seen as
subhuman. They were seen as poor, abandoned, godforsaken creatures, that you
could kill with no problem. There was no problem in wiping them out because they
thought there was no culture or nothing there to save. These two were the first
ones to treat them humanely and the first to tell the world that this knowledge
is important and that there is something we can learn from them. They don’t
have to learn from us, we have something to learn from them. That’s true even
to this day. Traditional knowledge matters because there’s a lot that science, fact
and rationalism cannot give us.

We have trusted Western culture and relied in
that, but it cannot give you a scientific explanation on what a thought is, you
can’t get a scientific explanation on what a soul is, or what love really is.
All the important things are beyond that. This extreme dependence on
rationalism has brought Western culture to a big spiritual crisis. People today
are looking for answers and they feel empty in many ways. These are
problems that traditional cultures don’t have because they have accepted the
mystery of the world. They have accepted it and lived with it. They respect
this mystery in numerous ways and that’s something we can learn from. That’s
what’s interesting to me in terms of making the film. At one point this could
have easily been the history of another Holocaust, because what really happened
there was genocide, but I wasn’t interested in making a Holocaust movie. What
was interesting to me was this knowledge that was about to be lost, and that is
still with us thanks to the fact that is was transmitted and managed to break
these barriers of intolerance, violence, and of cultures imposing one over the

Brionne Davis: A
journalist made a comment that I though was really brilliant. It said that my
character had an over confidence in his own intellect and I think that definitely
resembles the Western culture 100%, whether it be religion or science, we think
we know the answers and you have to abide by that. I think that there is a
savagery in that. The history of Colombia – I got a nice history lesson there
from Ciro who knows far more than I do -from when Spain came over and imposed
the religion there has been this thick woven fabric of Catholicism, but there is
also the fabric of their native culture and their traditions, which is
really strong.
These two cultures are so close but they don’t match. They
don’t mix, which is represented in the film. You see the worst of both worlds.
There was a church in right in the middle of the community where we were
shooting and everyday at five this bell would ring and for me it was incredible,
to hear that tat bell everyday was just a reminder of the horror that they’ve
gone through 600 years before and continue until even today. The rubber barons
would send their criminals to take over the land and create these slave camps.

All of that violence is now part of the DNA of the Amazon jungle.
I think that violence is definitely prominent in the fabric of the people
there. In terms of knowledge, there are some things that we can know
intellectually and those are the facts and that’s something that we have to
acknowledge, but there is this other thing we can’t put our finger on but we
have to just open ourselves up to the experience and listen, which is a
knowledge in and of itself. It’s not an intellectual knowledge. It’s nothing
you can lay fact or write out. It’s something you have to sense and feel.
Somebody asked me at one of the Q&As about the jaguar and the snake and
that for me is something that I can’t explain to you. I love archetypes in film
and I love the usage of them. When watching the film you have to walk away with
whatever you are going to take from that, which is knowledge that you can’t

CA: Ciro, You dedicate the film to “the people whose songs we’ll never hear,” and it’s clear that language is a pivotal tool to understand the world around us, yet so many have of them have vanished at the hands of oppression. Losing a language is losing irreplaceable knowledge. Considering this, how crucial was it for you to be able to make these film in indigenous languages?

Ciro: Guerra: It
was important to me that the film was respectful to the native languages of the
Amazon. Just the fact that these languages are spoken in the film adds millennia
of information, but there is also something profound that expresses itself
through language that cannot be replicated or mimicked. For example, in Wanano
language the word for dawn or sunrise is the same word you use to refer to the
female sexual organ. In Ticuna there is no word to say friend, instead you say,
“my other heart,” that’s what how you refer to a friend. Every language is a
way of understanding the worlds and respecting these languages was essential to
the point of the film. In that sense the biggest challenge was for Brionne and
Jan Bijvoet, the actors who were incredibly courageous and committed. It wasn’t
only a matter of coming to Colombia to shoot a film in the jungle, but also doing
it in indigenous language. Now that the film has been shown in the Amazon, for
the people of the Amazon it was a tremendous thing to see not only their
language portrayed on screen but also to see foreign actors speaking those
languages. It has been a really empowering and validating thing because these
languages were forbidden for centuries or they were hunted down. They tried to
kill these languages, and whenever a language disappears something so deep and
so profound that disappears. That is indescribable.

CA: The fact that
their language is so connected to nature and their environment really tells us
about who they are as a people

Ciro: Guerra: Yes, even the way it sounds. Even if you can’t understand it, just to be able to hear it transmits
or passes along something that’s important. We were lucky because this film has
words in languages that could disappear within a generation.

CA: Brionne, you play a character that was fluent in several languages, including an indigenous tongue. Tell me about how challenging was it to venture into learning to pronounce those words and the pressure of doing it justice on screen.

Brionne Davis: Speaking
Huitoto was definitely the greatest challenge. There are certain obligations
you have not only portraying a character that’s based on a real person, there
is, of course, an obligation you have to him and his legacy, but there is the
obligation of telling a story like this and then taking something as precious
as someone’s culture’s language and giving it justice. I spent a lot of time
with Antonio Bolivar and he was very giving. He is a phenomenal human being.
For ten hours a day I would go in and write, write, write. It would take me
three hours to memorize just a phrase and because I wanted to be able to feel
it in my mouth. I’m not an intellectual learner. I’m a spiritual and emotional
learner and interpreter of life. It was difficult for me, so I knew I just had
to put in my mouth so that I could think in English, and my objective would be
English, but my mouth would move and those words, hopefully correctly, would
come out. It was pretty amazing and there were a few times where Antonio would
be speaking in this language and I would just instinctively reply. There were a
couple of time when that happened and we were both very excited for me to do it
and him for witnessing it. The fact that I got to be a person who spoke that
language is an honor. Is humbling. It was a humbling experience to be part of
something so grand.

CA: One of the most breathtaking aspects of “Embrace of the Serpent” is the cinematography and the visual choices that spellbind the audience and transport us into a place between reality and myth. Where did this stylistic elements come from, in particular your decision to make the film in black-and-white? 

Ciro Guerra: The
visual inspiration for the film came from the explorer’s images. When I saw
these photos of them, which were almost like daguerreotypes, it was very
impressive because they were completely different to the idea we have of the
Amazon. It was an Amazon completely freed from all that exoticism or that
exuberance that normally people associate with it. It was like looking at
another world that was speaking to me through those images. In those images
there is no difference between man and his environment. Is not like in these
images nature is green and we, humans, are of a different color. Everything is
made of the same mater. In these black-and-white photos the entire world
appears to be made of the same material. That was very impacting for me, and I
wanted the film to have that sense. I wanted to recreate the sensation that
those photographs produced in me.

At the same time, I think it’s impossible to
reproduce the colors or the Amazon in film or video. Its color is varied and
has so many nuances that people there have over 50 words for the color green.
But when you photographed in black-and-white, you allow the audience to be the
one that imagines it and think of its color. This sparks the audience’s
imagination, which is what we hoped to do. It has worked, even thought the film
is in black-and-white there are people who have told me they see color in the
film. They would ask if a certain scene was in color because that’s how they
perceived it. It was such a big decision to make the film in black-and-white because
it affects everything else. It would be a completely different film if it were
in color. It wouldn’t be this one.

CA: Casting indigenous actors from the very communities you are depicting truly embedded the film with authenticity and honors the importance of their cultural contributions. How difficult was it for you and your team to find them and elicit the performances we see on screen even from those cast members that had no previous acting experience? 

Ciro Guerra: It
was one of my biggest concerns to find indigenous actors who could portray
these complex characters, which involved reaching out to people that have no
connection to acting, film, or television. The story of how we found the right
actor for each character is unique. We were looking at a lot of people for the
same character, but I feel that the only people that could play these
characters are the ones in the film. They were found at different times, and
each one of them has his story. I spoke to a lot of shamans, “payes,” and
elderly men, and I couldn’t find anyone that was even remotely close to what
the character in the film is. I watched all the material that has been filmed
in the Colombian Amazon, which is not a lot. While watching this material, I found
a short film that was made 30 years ago in the Amazon. There was a character
that is only in the film for a brief moment but who has a very striking face. I
found his name, I contacted him, I went to look for him, and when I knocked on
his door this man, Antonio Bolivar, appeared. The moment I saw him I knew that
the film could be made. There was no one like him among all the people I
considered. It was very impressive and he had experience. He knew what acting
was and he knew what acting for the camera was.  I invited him to participate, but the problem was that he
had had a very bad experience with that short film and he had said he would
never do it again.

We explained to him what we wanted to do. He looked at me
very deeply and he understood that I wasn’t going to cheat him like it had
happened to him before. Then he accepted. Once he accepted he gave his all to
the project. Regarding the other character, young Karamakate, we were around
Mitú, which is the place where we shot, inviting people in these communities to
participate in the film and asking them if they were interested. Everyone was
happy and they were all excited to collaborate both in front and behind the
camera, which was the idea we had originally. In one of the communities in
Santa Marta, people were really happy and we were taking photos of them.
Everyone wanted their photo taken, but there was a character that didn’t want
his photo taken and said that he wasn’t interested in participating in the
project. However, in these communities is all or nothing. Either all of them
participated or none of them would. Everyone told him, “We already said yes, so
you have to agree too.” He continued to say, “No,” but his friends and family
insisted so much that he said, “OK, I’ll do it, but if I do it I’m going to be
the protagonist of the film.”

His name is Nilbio, and when I saw his photo it was
incredible. He looks like a character from a folk tale, like a shaman warrior
from the past that I thought didn’t exist anymore. We told him what we were
trying to do and he understood it was the story of his ancestors, a story that
he had heard from his grandparents. He was very enthusiastic. When people in
these communities agree to do something, they do it with total emotion,
enthusiasm, but also with a lot of ingenuity, which is a great thing. When they
tell you, “Yes,” they give it their all at all cost and don’t look back. I
thought it would be much harder to work with them and explain to them what
acting is, but I realized they have a very powerful tool, which is their strong
oral storytelling tradition. That gives them the ability to listen truthfully,
and an actor that knows how to listen is hard to find. Because of this
tradition they are already halfway there in terms of acting. It was much easier
than we thought it would be. From that point on it was possible to quickly
develop the characters and the results surprised us all.

CA: The screenplay, as you mentioned, is based on the explorers’ written accounts, but there it’s also laced with a lot of mysticism. Why did you think that these moments in which the spiritual world takes over were necessary to tell this Amazonian story in an honest manner?

Ciro Guerra: The
film was first grounded on a thorough ethnographic investigation, but then I
realized that I was too worried about being accurate and loyal to reality. When
I started working with the Amazonian communities I discovered that for them
imagination, myths, and folk tales are as valid as history and facts. There was
a lot of freedom there to dream and to interpret. Despite the fact that we had
done all these research beforehand, what I wanted was for the film to be
embedded with these other elements. I wanted it to feel like and indigenous
folk tale, and those are folk tales where logic is subverted and where reality
ruptures. I wanted the film to have these ruptures in reality and these moments
in which imagination and dreams are in command. These are moments in which the
logic of imagination and dreams guide the film, which is the logic that would
fully guide the film if it were told from the other point of view rather than
that of the explorer’s. Getting to that point was a lot of work, it was very
hard for me to change that Western perception we have in our heads. I wanted to
build a bridge for the general audience to understand it, because the Amazonian
folk tales are very hard to comprehend. Some of them are incomprehensible for

“Embrace of the Serpent” is now playing L.A. at the Nuart Theatre and in NYC at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

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