Interview: Ciro Guerra, dir. Embrace of the Serpent

Colombian auteur Ciro Guerra’s latest film, Embrace of the Serpent, first screened in the Director’s Fortnight section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival (where it won the CICAE Award) and is the first Colombian film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. It recounts, through a mixture of fact and fiction, the transformational journeys of real-life explorers Theo Koch- Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes through the Amazon rainforest, while taking the audience on an equally profound spiritual voyage. Maximilian Von Thun sat down with Guerra ahead of the UK release of the film, which is in cinemas and on demand this Friday.

Maximilian Von Thun: Embrace of the Serpent is a record of people who are extinct or who soon will be. Do you have any optimism that this process can be reversed, or is this a farewell to them?
Ciro Guerra: The main inspiration behind the film is people who no longer exist. The disappearance of cultures is something we don’t understand very well as a society – people are far more educated about endangered animal species, for example. But I also believe that this disappearance is a natural part of the process of human evolution; in fact, indigenous people themselves do not see it as a tragedy, just as they do not see death as a tragedy. What is most important is the knowledge of these cultures, and making sure it lives on. In that sense we filmmakers play the same role as storytellers in indigenous communities, who gather people around the fire and tell stories using light and shadow. We need to realise that our way of life is just one option. There are many ways to be human, all valid in their own right.

MVT: I’ve heard you say that it was important for you to focus on the indigenous experience and cast indigenous actors in central roles. How did your backers, colleagues and friends react to this?

CG: In my previous films I worked with non-professional actors with positive results, so there was prior experience. The big question this time around was – can you pull it off? I had no idea if we would be able to get indigenous people to act. But it turned out to be much easier than I thought. The oral traditions that they have kept alive give them the ability to listen, which is exactly what an actor needs but not something easy to find. From there we were able to build their characters, as they had an intuitive grasp of what storytelling is all about.

MVT: Your film has an aura to it that has generated excitement wherever it has been released – what is it that has spoken to people so strongly?

CG: The message of the film cannot be put into words. But it has definitely struck a chord. I believe this is because we live in a time where people are more open to spirituality, to different understandings of the world, something that was not the case ten or twenty years ago. It comes from a deep exhaustion with the modern world, with the constant crises, violence and hate – people are looking for an alternative. Our secular societies are failing to tap into something essential, which is perhaps why my film has communicated with so many individuals. I’m the first to admit that isn’t something I expected when making it; when I said I was making a black and white film about the Amazon, people thought we were crazy – who would watch that?

MVT: On a similar note, the film portrays a clash between two different universes; on the one hand, the scientific, objective and knowledge-driven universe of Western explorers Theo Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes; on the other, the intuitive and instinctive way of experiencing the world as manifested by shaman Karamakate. Do you see a way of combining these two worldviews?

CG: Indigenous people are pretty good at that; they take what they need from whatever source, and if it’s useful they absorb it. For example, if you talk to them about Jesus, they say: “he sounds like a shaman, I can learn something from him”. They aren’t fixated on dividing up the world in the way that Westerners are, but instead see all men as men. Ultimately, I think it must remain up to them what they wish to learn from us. We undoubtedly also have much to learn from them, but the question of the “how” is beyond me. I just want to spark curiosity and a conversation.

MVT: There’s a line I love where Karamakate talks about the “Cohuiano warrior who must abandon all and go alone into the jungle, guided only by his dreams, to find out in solitude who he really is”. Watching the film felt like something similar, almost – dare I say it – like a religious experience. Was that one of your aims?

CG: Definitely, although I hadn’t yet connected it with that line you mentioned, which is actually a myth of the people of the Xingu River in Brazil – we borrowed from several indigenous peoples to create the fictional Cohuiano tribe. What I hoped for with the film – and I like the way you phrased it – is that it would be a trance-like experience, in which the viewer reaches an elevated state of heart and mind, something that cinema has the power to do because of how it involves the senses. Every element of the film is designed to achieve this, from the use of sound and music to the black and white cinematography and the story itself. What you see is both real and unreal at the same time.

MVT: It’s interesting that you mention a “trance-like experience”, as Schultes appears to undergo something of that description at the end of his journey through the jungle. What can you tell us about that extraordinary scene?

CG: When you take a spiritual journey in the Amazonian world, what happens is that the world “cracks open” – you get a glimpse of something you cannot ordinarily see. I knew that my film needed to do the same – to break itself open in order to turn into something new – which is what happens in that scene. From the start, it was clear to us that we didn’t want a special effects show, so instead we chose to give life to the iconography of the Barazana people. What you see is the way they represent the spiritual world. It is a primitive visual language that a child could replicate, because for them, when you complete your spiritual journey you reacquire something you knew as a child but forgot as an adult. Schultes’ trance experience is something that the film has been promising all along, something the audience needs without realising it.

MVT: One moment that particularly struck me is the scene where Schultes listens to Haydn’s Creation on his gramophone with Karamakate. Karamakate’s reaction surprised me: instead of rejecting it as horrible Western music, he embraces it and encourages Schultes to deepen his own understanding of it.

CG: Very few people recognise the music, I’m glad you did. That scene was born from Schultes’ diaries, as in them he describes his gramophone as his most precious possession. He said it took him back to his ancestors, and I think the fact that Haydn’s work is about the creation of the world makes that statement tremendously meaningful. My personal interpretation is that when Schultes got together with this shaman, a man of knowledge of the indigenous people, they created an entirely new world between themselves.

MVT: After reading the diaries of Koch-Gründberg and Schultes and spending several years yourself digging deep into the culture of the Amazon’s indigenous people, how do you feel you have changed as a person?

CG: I’ve been asked that question before, and thought many times about the best way of putting it into words. It’s difficult, because you’re asking me to summarise three or four years spent learning to see the world from a different perspective. The best way I can explain it is that I feel somehow lighter; it’s as if I’ve lost intellectual, emotional and spiritual baggage. I’ve learned – it sounds strange when I say it – to be transparent. Although that’s the best I can do to sum it up, it’s very limited. There’s something Koch-Gründberg wrote in his diaries that I relate to profoundly: he said “language is a prison”. So I’m grateful to have cinema, which is much more effective than words at telling stories.

Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka

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