¡Viva! 22 #2: El Abrazo de la serpiente (The Embrace of the Serpent, Colombia-Argentina-Venezuela 2015)

Antonio Bolívar as Old Karamakate and Brionne Davis as Evan (photo by Andres Barrientos)

Antonio Bolívar as Old Karamakate and Brionne Davis as Evan (photo by Andres Barrientos)

This screening was listed as a ‘Preview’ and the film is to be released in the UK in June by Peccadillo Pictures. It’s a shame that the impact of The Pearl Button (Chile 2015) will have diminished a little by then because the two films have much in common and I would urge you to see both. The story of the havoc that European mercantilism, colonialism, capitalism and imperialism have wreaked on the indigenous peoples of Latin America is one that needs to be told and these are two fine examples of how to do it in a sensitive but always engaging way.

The Embrace of the Serpent is a fictional story but one closely based on two diaries/documentary accounts by a European and a North American making journeys into the Upper Amazon region in the first half of the 20th century. The film is presented in Black and White ‘Scope (2.35:1) with a short colour sequence towards the end. This formal decision immediately sets up meanings for different audiences. For older audiences it may take us back to the documentaries of our childhood when Black and White meant ‘realism’. For younger audiences it might mean ‘artistry’ – or artistic pretension. Personally, I forgot about it very quickly – though I did think about a film like Tabu (Portugal-Ger-Braz-Fra 2012) which raises some of the same kinds of questions. The film was shot on 35mm and the director maintains that the film camera is more robust than a digital camera under extreme conditions – a reminder that Theeb, filmed in the desert conditions of South Jordan also utilised film (and both films were nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar this year). Film also acts to discipline the filmmaker when two takes is the maximum for each shot, presumably because of cost and the physical labour of carrying more cans of film. The only downside is that there is only one film lab for 35mm in South America – and it’s in Argentina. (For more discussion on this go to the Cineaste interview.)

Director Ciro Guerra

Director Ciro Guerra

The film is set mainly in Colombia on the rivers that flow into the Amazon in the Vaupés region of Colombian Amazonia. There is still debate as to where the Amazon begins and national borders must be fairly arbitrary in this region where Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet. The Venezuelan border is to the North East. The first meeting between a German botanist and an Amazonian shaman Karamakate is around 1910. The shaman believes himself to be the last survivor of a tribe wiped out through contact with ‘whites’. He is hostile towards the European and his assistant, a local man who the European has bought out of slavery on a rubber plantation. The shaman is persuaded to help in the search for a rare plant only because the European says that there are more of the shaman‘s people upstream. The European is sick but the shaman can temporarily ‘cure’ him. A full recovery is only possible if they find the yakruna plant (a fictional epiphyte that grows on rubber trees and is a source of hallucinogenic substances). The second story involves the same shaman thirty years on, still on his own but now less aggressively hostile and accepting that he has lost many of his memories of his people. He agrees to help an American scientist/traveller search for the same plant – although the American’s reasons for his search seem less clear (at one point he seems to be looking for new rubber tree varieties). The film’s director and co-writer Ciro Guerra has decided to tell the two stories in parallel so that the narrative switches from one to the other, almost at will. The effect is that it is difficult without the film actually in front of me to remember which incident relates to which story. The reason for structuring the film in this way is to represent the indigenous peoples’ way of seeing the world and telling a story. Guerra discovered that the two whites who wrote their diaries were perceived to be the same character and that stories didn’t need to be told in a linear fashion.

An image that might have come from an ethnographic account of a journey in the early 20th century. Jon Bijvoet as Theo, the earlier of the two 'whites' to travel upstream, poses with a group of local people.

An image that might have come from an ethnographic account of a journey in the early 20th century. Jon Bijvoet as Theo, the earlier of the two ‘whites’ to travel upstream, poses with a group of local people (photo by Andrés Córdoba).

Guerra maintains that the film is intended to allow the indigenous peoples of the region to tell their story and to represent history as they see it. The region suffered very badly from the ‘rubber boom’ in the last quarter of the 19th century and today the region still has no roads, but is in danger of exploitation from mining as well as coca cultivation and other ‘plantation’ practices. As well as the capitalist exploiters, other agencies such as the Catholic Church are responsible for the suffering of the local people. Guerra discusses the various issues in the press notes downloadable from the US distributor Oscilloscope and in the Cineaste interview.

This is certainly an important film but it might be approached in different ways by different audiences. In one sense it is a genuine ‘art film’, beautiful to look at with an unconventional narrative and no distinct ending/resolution. (I realise I’ve already forgotten how it ends, but I don’t think that matters.) Could it be seen as an art film with the possibility that audiences might miss the politics? Perhaps for some it will be primarily ‘exotic’ or ‘ethnographic’? Others may assume a generic perspective, expecting a trip upstream to be informed by Conrad and therefore a voyage into the ‘Heart of Darkness’. It’s also a reminder of the hallucinogenic/psychedelic culture, mainly associated with the 1960s counter-culture and writers such as Carlos Castaneda. I’m most taken by the ecological discourse and the critique of capitalism and organised religion.

The film’s title refers to the ‘founding myth’ of the peoples of the Amazon basin. Here’s the director on the mythology (from the Cineaste interview):

In Amazonian mythology, extraterrestrial beings descended from the Milky Way, journeying to the earth on a gigantic anaconda snake. They landed in the ocean and travelled into the Amazon, stopping at communities where people existed, leaving these pilots behind who would explain to each community the rules of how to live on earth: how to harvest, fish, and hunt. Then they regrouped and went back to the Milky Way, leaving behind the anaconda, which became the river. The wrinkled skin of the serpent became the waterfalls.

They also left behind a few presents, including coca, the sacred plant; tobacco, which is also another kind of sacred plant; and yagé, the equivalent of ayahuasca, which is what you use to communicate with them in case you have a question or a doubt about how to exist in the world. When you use yagé, the serpent descends again from the Milky Way and embraces you. That embrace takes you to faraway places; to the beginning where life doesn’t even exist; to a place where you can see the world in a different way. I hope that’s what the film means to the audience.

I’m looking forward to watching the film again and I’m hoping for a successful UK theatrical release.

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