'Embrace of the Serpent' Is a Violent, Psychedelic, Film About the Colonisation of the Amazon

Colombian director Ciro Guerra's critically acclaimed new movie tells the story of the invasion of the sacred jungle from an indigenous perspective.

Camilo Salas

Camilo Salas

All photos courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg arrived in the Amazon intending to study its indigenous people. A few dozen years later, the North American biologist Richard Evan Schultes appeared in the jungle to study plants used by the same indigenous population. These two true stories are the point of departure for Embrace of the Serpent, a film by the 34-year-old Colombian director Ciro Guerra. Using these two scientists as a framework, Guerra fictionalises the history of a forgotten indigenous community, including how the last member of the tribe embarked on important journeys, first in his youth with Koch-Grünberg and later when much older with Schultes.

The film, which won the biggest prize at Cannes Directors' Fortnight and has left American critics breathless with praise, relays the same magnificent spirit of the jungle as in Werner Herzog's classic Fitzcarraldo, but this time tells its story from the indigenous perspective. It's a film that's constantly on the move through this vast, sacred jungle – a sort of psychedelic road trip by canoe – that deals with the history of colonial oppression, religion, and madness. What makes Guerra's film so moving and unique is how well it captures the immensity of the jungle and the incredible lives of the people who have existed there for centuries.

I spoke with Guerra over Skype as the director was preparing to travel from Colombia to Sundance to present Embrace of the Serpent before it opens at select theatres in the United States.

VICE: How did you discover the history of these two scientists?
Ciro Guerra: I was always curious about the Amazon. Making a film there was something I'd always wanted to do. But we know very little about the Amazon – at least Colombians know very little about it – so I began to investigate. A knowledgeable friend told me that a good starting point would be to read the diaries of the explorers who first entered the Colombian Amazon 100 years ago. It wasn't all that long ago because this area had been completely underexplored. I encountered an incredible story that hadn't been told. My first approach was through these explorers because they were men who had left everything behind – their lives, families, houses, countries – to penetrate the unknown for two, three, or even 19 years in the case of Schultes. I identified so much with this. It seemed similar to what happens when you make a film: You set off down a dark road and don't know where it will take you or how long it will be before you see the light.

What was the investigative process regarding native customs, characters, locations? Was it all based on these diaries?
It was based on the explorers' diaries at first, but later when I went to the Amazon, it was completely unlike what they'd documented. We don't have a collective memory for this time as a society. It's a lost epoch. The idea was to return to it, to bring it back even though it no longer exists. It would exist again in film.

So I started to follow their tracks and try to hear their echoes. Later I began to work with the indigenous communities. I approached them and spoke with them about what we wanted to do. Working with them, I realised we'd make something special and unique. We would circle around the history and not tell it from the same perspective it's always told from – that of the adventurer, the traveler – but instead tell it from the indigenous point of view. We'd make them the protagonists. This is the part of the story that hasn't been told. Switching the perspective and putting the audience in those shoes really interested me. It's truly a film that hasn't been seen. But achieving this indigenous perspective, this way of seeing the world, was difficult. It took time. It's hard to change your thinking like this.

Was the filming process difficult?
We were prepared for the worst. We'd heard stories of shootings that became nightmares. What we did was get close to the community and ask for their help and collaboration. We invited them to participate in front of and behind the cameras. They taught me how to work with the environment, with the jungle, to ask it permission. They performed rituals for spiritual protection. They explained to the jungle what we wanted to do. This meant that the shooting came off very well. We didn't have illnesses or accidents. The climate supported us. If it started to rain when we paused for lunch, it stopped later on when we returned to work. The shooting was demanding for everyone but also a profoundly spiritual, humbling adventure.

How long did it last?
The pre-production process and shooting took three months and involved more or less 40 people from outside the Amazon and some 60 people from indigenous communities.

What happened with the rubber industry in the region? It's something that's in the film, the savagery of it.
The rubber industry is responsible for the largest genocide in Colombia. The last novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, The Dream of the Celt, is the story of an Irishman who denounced the rubber industry for its role in the brutal and savage extermination of hundreds of thousands of indigenous. Beyond the disappearance of much of their knowledge, many communities disappeared completely. Hundreds of thousands of people were enslaved and exploited in the worst way to make rubber the great industry it was. For a hundred years it was like petroleum. Manaos in Brazil was like Dubai, the richest city in the world at the time. Everything came at the cost of savage exploitation that was later denounced.

For the film, this wasn't something that interested me at first. If it was going to transform into a film about genocide, it wasn't what I had wanted to make. I was more interested in making a film about consciousness.

That scene in which many actors are dismembered is pretty powerful.
We try to synthesise all the pain in that scene. The truth was much more terrible. If that scene comes close to it, the truth was infinitely worse.

How did you decide to film in black and white?
The explorers' photographs were the principal influence, images in black and white, plate photography, almost daguerreotypes that they took. What you see is an Amazon that's completely different from the one now. You can see all the exoticism, all the exuberance. It feels like another world, another time. Being there I realised it wasn't possible to reproduce with any fidelity the colour of the Amazon. There's no filter or camera or oil that lets you reproduce its significance. I felt that to do it in black and white, to get rid of colors, would activate the audience's imagination. Viewers would add the colors in their mind and these imagined colors would be more real than whatever we could reproduce. This imagined Amazon is more real than the actual Amazon.

Translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein.Follow Camilo on Twitter.

Embrace of the Serpent will be released by Oscilloscope Laboratories at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York on Wednesday, February 17, 2016 , and at Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles on Friday, February 19, 2016, with a national rollout to follow.