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Peccadillo Pictures  in London, UK
Peccadillo Pictures  on 2016-06-10

Embrace of the Serpent by Ciro Guerra

At once blistering and poetic, the ravages of colonialism cast a dark shadow over the South American landscape in EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT, the third feature by Ciro Guerra. Filmed in stunning black-and-white, SERPENT centers on Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his people, and the two scientists who, over the course of 40 years, build a friendship with him. The film was inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers, Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes, who traveled through the Colombian Amazon during the last century in search of the sacred and difficult-to-find psychedelic Yakruna plant.


This production imposed challenges for its director that probably no other film of his will ever match. There were many moments in which it seemed giving up was the only option, not only due to the difficulties of financing and making the film, but also while facing the mystery that he encountered as he went deeper into the Amazon jungle.

“As we finished the first week of shooting, a deep concern came over me,” Guerra wrote in a journal, not unlike the ones of the explorers whose stories inspired the film. “The complications were too great, the schedule was too tight. It became clear, crystal clear, that finishing this movie was impossible. We had dreamt too big, we had aimed too far. We had been sinfully optimistic, and the gods and the jungle were about to punish us. With this clarity, like the sailor who is the first to notice that the vessel is sinking, I sat down and prepared for the inevitable. But then, what I witnessed was how a miracle came into being.”

Where does this story come from?

It came from a personal interest in learning about the world of the Colombian Amazon, which is half the country, and yet it remains hidden and unknown, even though I’ve lived in Colombia all my life.

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. But when you start to study and research it, you do it through the eyes of the explorers, who are always European or North American. They were the ones who came and gave us news about our own country.

I wanted to tell a story about these encounters, but from a new perspective, in which the protagonist wasn’t the white man as usual, but the native. This changes the entire perspective and renews it. We wanted to be able to tell this story in a way that was true to their experience, yet was relatable to any other person on the planet.

The story is told in two different times, based on the diaries of two explorers who never met. How was the process of writing and how did you find the narrative thread to tell this story?

There’s an idea in many of the texts that explore the indigenous world that speaks of a different concept of time. Time to them is not a line, as we see it in the West, but a series of multiple universes happening simultaneously. 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, was fascinating to me, and I thought it would make a great starting point for the script. It 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.

With all that’s happened, how do you feel about the relationship with the native communities and how did they react to the production?

The native communities were very open and immensely helpful. Amazonian people are very warm, funny, with a lot of heart. They are obviously careful at the beginning, while they figure out what your true intentions are, because for a long time people who have come do so in order to pillage and hurt. But once they realize that you’re not a threat, they are very enthusiastic and we were very happy to work together with them.

What we are doing is rescuing the memory of an Amazon that no longer exists—that is not what it was before. Hopefully this film will create this image in the collective memory, because characters like Karamakate—this breed of wise, warrior-shamans—are now extinct. The modern native is something else, there is much knowledge that still remains, but most of it is now lost, many cultures, languages. This knowledge has been passed on through oral tradition, it’s never been written, and from my personal experience, trying to approach it was kind of humiliating, because it is not something you can aspire to understand in a short time like you do in school or college. 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 not a matter of folklore or ancient cultures but of 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.

Has this process of research and knowledge of these cultures changed your perception of the world in any way?

In every way. I am a different person now than when this process started. I think all of us who made this movie feel the same way. You learn to swim in this gigantic flow and everyday it brings new things, new visions. We saw how everything has knowledge, from the rock to the tree, the insect or the wind, and we learned to find happiness in that. It’s a change in perspective.

It’s difficult for us, having been born and raised in the capitalist system, to change our lives. But we approached another form of existing, and it’s comforting to know that there’s not just one way to be human. Discovering the beauty in the other, and learning and respecting that, is still important.


In UK Cinemas June 10

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