Journey into the Unknown: Ciro Guerra's 'Embrace of the Serpent' recreates an Amazon odyssey

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Two white explorers, separated by time and space, come to the Colombian Amazon in search of a sacred plant. They are united by the shaman Karamakate, who reveals to them not only the secrets of the jungle but also the ravages of colonialism. Made with the help of the indigenous population, Embrace of the Serpent is a magical glimpse into what it means to be human—and an Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film. Judy Gelman Myers of Director Talk recently spoke with Ciro Guerra, director of the Oscilloscope release.

Director Talk: The film is based on the diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes. How did you encounter the diaries, what were they like, and why did they inspire you to make this film?

Ciro Guerra: Making a film in the Amazon was a lifelong dream of mine. I had done very personal films before, which were based on personal experience and family and culture and things that were very close to me, so I wanted to get away from all that and just take a journey into the unknown. The Amazon is the big unknown for us in Colombia. It’s half the country, but it’s a place we don’t know much about, and we’ve never heard stories from there. I started doing some research with an anthropologist friend of mind, and he said the journals would be very interesting. When I started reading them, I was mesmerized, because what I found there was a fascinating story that had never been told.

It wasn’t a story that was told in the diaries—the diaries are scientific journals, so they are not narrative, and they don’t have any dramaturgical structure. But the story that you could feel from behind, the story of men of knowledge from different worlds coming together and sharing knowledge at the same time that it was being destroyed and the world around them was crumbling, was fascinating. And these journals had a huge impact; they had a huge part in the countercultural revolution of the mid-’50s, and they are at the heart of what became the first ecological movement, the hippie movement, the psychedelia movement. The Beat Generation readers and writers were all inspired by this. The knowledge that was revealed during these encounters in the Colombian jungle really had an impact on the world, so I thought it was a fascinating story, and once I read the diaries I just couldn’t look back. I had to make a movie.

DT: What impression did you have of the explorers?

CG: Huge admiration. These are men who would leave everything behind. They would leave their families behind, their lives behind, their societies behind, and for two or three years, or even twelve years in the case of Schultes, go into uncharted territory just to expand the knowledge of what it is like to be human. And they were the first ones to approach the indigenous cultures of the Amazon in a humanistic way. Before them, the peoples of the Amazon were seen as subhuman, abandoned, godforsaken creatures that needed to be rescued. Then these men came, and they were the first ones to say, “These people have knowledge and a different way of understanding the world, and we can learn from that.” It was revolutionary at the time. It still is, sadly.

DT: As you said before, Colombians west of the Cordilleras are pretty ignorant of the Amazon and the people in it. How much of Colombians’ perceptions of the Amazon is determined by what happens in the western part of the country, like the drug wars?

CG: For a long time, people have been afraid of the Amazon. As the armed conflict escalated, many parts of the Amazon became strongholds for illegal groups—guerrillas or paramilitary—and drug trafficking, so it created this atmosphere of the Amazon being a dangerous place, an impenetrable place. The communities of the Amazon have been very heavily impacted by these armed groups; they’ve been one of their main victims, but that’s just another form of colonization—it’s capitalism in its most brutal form. When people thought of the Amazon, they didn’t think of its indigenous peoples, its history and its culture; they were just thinking about war and drugs and many negative things.

DT: As you were reading the diaries, did you get a sense of a difference between Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes? In the film, at least, they ended up in very, very different places psychologically. How did you feel about each of them?

CG: The characters in the film should be seen as fictional. They are inspired mostly by these men, but they are also taken from the diaries and information and journeys of other explorers. So they are fictional constructions. For me, they represent the contrast between the nineteenth-century man, who was romantic and who had a craving for knowledge that was just beyond reach. Theodor Koch-Grunberg was in line with people like Alexander von Humboldt, for example, scientists who dealt with knowledge in such a way. Theodor Koch-Grunberg took notes not only on ethnography but also on botany, on speleology, on meteorology, on geography, on geology. He drew most of the maps of the place that were used for decades. And he was interested in insects. He was interested in so many things. Such a vast understanding of knowledge is just unbelievable for us today. While Richard Evans Schultes—not Richard Evans Schultes but the character of Evan, which is different—is more of a representation of the twentieth-century man, who is more materialistic and who has given up on knowledge for its own sake, the romantic notion of knowledge that was prevalent in the nineteenth century. He’s now in a world in which knowledge has a purpose and meaning, and that is usually an economic meaning and an economic purpose.

DT: But in the film, Theo was not able to shed his identity enough to experience the spirit world, whereas Evan did.

CG: The process of learning is not an easy process. I learned from the indigenous people that in order for the process to be true, you have to die in a way—part of you has to die and you need to be reborn. So it’s not about intentions. The character of Theo has better intentions than the character of Evan, but that is the irony of the way life tends to operate. Knowledge has to be built through generations. It’s not just something that can traverse the journey of a single man.

DT: I loved the way that you dealt with time ellipses. Can you talk about the function of time in the screenplay, and also in the way you shot the film?

CG: Cinema is a medium of time, so it lends itself perfectly to understanding different notions of time. I was fascinated by the notion of time that the indigenous people have. They don’t conceive of it as the linear cause and effect that we understand in the Western world. Since time immemorial they have conceived it as a sort of simultaneous multiplicity. When I heard an Amazonian shaman speaking about time, I realized that it was close to what quantum physicists say about time. You understand that time is just a perception that is given by your own subjectivity, so I was interested in allowing the viewer to be submerged in a different way of understanding time and doing so in a structure that we can understand as a tale but would feel not as a Western tale but as an Amazonian tale.

I started with a script that was very Western in many ways—it was very clear, and it had all the dates and locations right. But then as I started developing with the Amazonian peoples, the film became imbued with Amazonian mythology and Amazonian storytelling, and we just wanted it to feel a bit like an Indian tale. But it should be clear that it was constructed as building a bridge between these two narrative traditions. It’s not Amazonian myth as it is, and the Amazon in the film is not the real Amazon. It’s a very magic Amazon.

DT: What’s the situation with the indigenous people today, and how did they react to re-enacting such a painful period of their past?

CG: About twenty years ago, a law was passed by the Colombian government that gave the people in the region where we shot property ownership over their land. It was a big development, and since then many, many cultures that were about to disappear have found ways to thrive again.

DT: That’s incredible!

CG: They could stop fighting the government over their land, but now illegal poachers have also become a problem…illegal drug lords, illegal mining, illegal woodcutters. But the main problem I think that they’re facing now is that young people are not interested in learning the traditional knowledge and keeping their life. They are seduced by the capitalist lifestyle, and they want to live that way, so the elders are feeling very worried about that and very abandoned by their youngest, who are seduced by this other way of life. It creates a huge identity problem, because once young people try to live in the other lifestyle, they realize they don’t belong, but they don’t feel that they belong to the traditional lifestyle either. It creates a huge conflict of identity that has led many young people to suicide, so that’s the main problem right now. But these are people who are very resourceful. They have great joy, and they live very calm, peaceful lives as long as they’re allowed to.

DT: That’s a worldwide phenomenon, where young people want to leave or aren’t interested in the traditions. Is there any kind of movement, either by outside groups or by the indigenous population, to keep the young kids within the traditions?

CG: There are initiatives in that sense, mostly within the local communities, but it also has to do with the fact that for them, initiatives like the film become important, because they realize that this knowledge is important and that the outside world thinks it’s important. So for them initiatives like this have this impact of indicating their own culture. The problem is that these cultures have been neglected and underappreciated for so long that this is the lasting effect of it.

DT: I was fascinated by the concept of the chullachaqui [a mythological figure of the Amazon, a hollow copy of a human being who roams the jungle, waiting for someone to deceive. Every human being in the world has a chullachaqui exactly like them in appearance but completely empty inside]. Did you discover that in the diaries, and if not, where, and can you tell me about it?

CG: The concept of the chullachaqui wasn’t in the diaries. It’s a concept of the Machiguenga people in the Peruvian Amazon, and I stumbled across it when I was doing research on German culture at the time. What struck me was the similarity between the chullachaqui and the concept of the German doppelganger, which is almost the same, and how these two concepts from two different cultures mirrored each other. Then I realized that the chullachaqui had deeper meaning, because it’s a millennia-old concept that speaks to modern mankind. I’m fascinated by this dialogue between something that comes from a contemporary reality in which people communicate through virtual avatars and this millennium-old myth that speaks to the very core of the very essence of man.

DT: Did the jungle have the same effect on you that it did on the explorers?

CG: I think the whole film encapsulates and captures in a very true way the feeling that we experienced being there. I think the film is true in that sense, and it’s an attempt to replicate some of the questionings that went through my mind and through my soul while traversing the Colombian Amazon.

DT: You were protected by a shaman while you were there?

CG: We had the spiritual protection of the communities. They gave us permission to shoot in the sacred lands and they gave us guidance on how to work in the jungle in a way that was respectful. They also gave us spiritual protection.

DT: I’d like to discuss the Amazonian concept of power, especially in relation to Viracocha [the creator god and father of all other Inca gods], because power can be seen as both a negative and a positive force. That’s obvious, but I feel like there are many subtleties that came across in the film.

CG: This is so complex. When the indigenous people saw the very first people from Europe, some of them thought that they were looking at gods because they found similarities between them and the Viracocha mythology, which is essentially terrible gods.

DT: Terrible in the sense of bad, or terrible in the sense of awe-inspiring?

CG: Both. The kind of god that if you don’t worship it will punish you, so it speaks to the very complex relationships of power that happened during the time. I cannot discuss this at length, but it’s a subject worthy of an entire symposium.

Click here for the trailer and local theatre listings. Thanks to Susan Norget and Keaton Kail of Susan Norget Film Promotion for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk: http://earthwize.org/wordpress/directortalk. Copyright © Director Talk 2016.