After first hearing about the Colombian film, El abrazo de la serpiente, or Embrace of the Serpent as it’s been titled in English, I was on the lookout for a screening nearby. I saw nearly everything in theaters over Christmas vacation, but the film hadn’t made it to NC (nor NYC or LA) in January. Even after the Academy Award nominees were announced on January 14th, with El abrazo de la serpiente in the category for Best Foreign Film, there still were no listings. But a few short weeks later I arrived in Bogotá, and I enjoyed seeing the film in a theater here, surrounded by bogotanos, celebrating a work of art produced by one of their own.
Then this weekend, I attended a Q&A with Jacques Toulemonde, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Ciro Guerra. I left the session feeling even more inspired, believing that everyone, but especially Americans (defined as those from Canada, the U.S., and any part of Latin America) could benefit from reflecting on the issues brought up by the film regarding colonialism and cultural understanding. Lucky for all of my friends in the U.S., the film is finally opening in select cities, starting this week, so all of the people I’ve been raving to will finally have the chance to experience El abrazo de la serpiente for themselves. For those of you I haven’t raved to quite yet, here goes.
If I were Colombian, I would be proud to have such an epic film that reflects the complexities of colonialism representing my country as its first Oscar nomination. While the nomination is derived from a gringo value system that may not be shared by the Colombian academic film community nor the general movie-going public, the endorsement has drawn many more Colombians to theaters. Such thoughtful movies that refuse to rely on tools for mainstream popularity are not nearly always commercially successful, and, again the Oscar nomination certainly bolstered attendance at screenings. But I think that Guerra also masterfully engaged the less conventional aspects, namely, the decision to film in black and white, the understudied subject matter of Amazonian communities, and the management of multiple languages and dialects (many of which will be very unfamiliar to even Colombian viewers).
When I first saw press material for the film, I assumed that the black and white photos leading articles were only part of a publicity scheme and that the film would showcase the lush colors of the Amazon. But Guerra’s visions of the Amazon refuse the viewer the exoticizing, vibrant colors. Rather, as Toulemonde explained, the creative team insisted on filming in black and white to express the notion of the past which cannot be rescued. The stories told are set in the past, the indigenous groups depicted long gone, and so much of the colonizing that occurred in the Amazon cannot be undone, with black and white visually signaling this relegation to the past. Beyond this, the monochrome allows for a more faithful recreation of photographs captured by the two Western scientists whose diaries first inspired Guerra to create the film. As someone who embraces color, I didn’t expect I would feel so strongly about this choice, but hearing the rationale and seeing the epic shots of the river in the smooth black and white was enough to convince me the film had to be made this way. (In the Q&A Toulemonde explained that the black and white scheme was part of the original vision for the film but that many involved in the project were concerned funding for a B&W project in the Amazon of all places would be too difficult to secure–how different the film would be had this essential visual element been compromised).
I’ll also daresay that the black and white scheme contributes to a larger sense of “the classic” in its treatment of age-old subject matter: “Western civilization” and “hombres blancos” encountering indigenous groups in the Americas. And while this topic is anything but new, it has rarely been considered in the local context of the Amazon. Plus, it is far from stale because Guerra is daring with the film; the stories of two real-life European and North American scientists are neatly woven together and told with innovative narrative flair and captivating cinematography exploiting monochromic restraint of black and white. Through the development of relationships between these scientists and a shaman, the sole survivor of his indigenous tribe, the film brings forth new questions about the colonial dynamics that began over half a century ago. (On a more universal level, the theme of considering your presence and impact as an outsider got me thinking about how in the present-day as tourists we can strive for cultural understanding that doesn’t sacrifice the integrity of those cultures that fascinate us).
The story opens as the German ethnologist, Theodor von Martins (based on real-life Theodor Koch-Grunberg), is on the verge of death. His indigenous guide, Manduca, dressed in Western clothing, desperately tends to the explorer. Their optimism for the German’s survival is renewed when they cross paths with an impressively-built, loin-cloth-donning Karamakate. They hope the shaman can bring them to a plant called the yakruna, believed to have mystical healing properties. Karamakate is busy performing rituals of his peoples and is initially disgusted by the premise that he should help the white man who’s people have destroyed his people. Karamakate insults the guide, Manduca, accusing him of being a traitor, but when Theodor claims to have met others from his tribe earlier on his journey, Karamakate is intrigued.
The shaman eventually joins the pair, but before they make much headway canoeing down the Amazon, the film cuts to 40 years in the future, as another outsider, this time a botanist from Harvard referred to as Evan (based on real-life Richard Evans Schultes) canoes towards the shaman’s settlement. Following the notes of Theodor, Evan also meets Karamakate, who Evan hopes will lead him to the legendary yakruna plant. Just as Karamakate is swayed by familiarity in Theodor’s claim to have met others of his tribe, when Evan meets Karamakate he displays his knowledge of Karamakate’s people. The shaman is still in incredible shape physically but has aged and has begun to forget how to perform customs of his people; having extensively studied the many groups in this portion of the Amazon, Evan wins some trust from Karamakate when he helps the shaman perform rituals of his tribe.
Theodor and Evan, guided separately by Karamakate, come across all sorts of indigenous peoples in their quest for the plant. One of the more disturbing visits is to a religious community, which by the time of Evan’s visit has devolved into a society worshipping a Messiah and engaging in bizarre, brainwashed ritual activity (Evan and Karamakate are believed to be two of the three wise men, and allowed to enter the community under this pretense, which Karamakate later exploits to come out alive). The parties discuss their values, beliefs about the creation of man and the world, and relationship to nature. But there were also many tense moments of confrontation. The meeting of the sole survivor of an indigenous tribe and “hombres blancos” working as ethnographers and botanists brings about a clash between interests of the two groups–the indigenous peoples seeking to preserve rituals and a society suffering from colonial oppression and the “hombres blancos” driven by the desire to acquire knowledge of foreign cultures.
Fusing the dream-like qualities of an Amazonian myth to a framework of Western storytelling was no easy task. From the perspective of a screenwriter, I was intrigued by several challenges that Toulemonde discussed in the Q&A and that Guerra mentioned in his Vice interview. Considering the writing process, I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to write a project in Spanish then have many portions translated into different indigenous languages. When Toulemonde commented on this aspect of the experience he noted that the process of translation inevitably changed the writing, but that when speakers of these indigenous languages converted dialogue into the ways they would actually express the ideas, this lent another layer of authenticity that was well worth sacrificing a sense of total control. Part of me also wonders how Toulemonde and Guerra felt comfortable voicing perspectives of the indigenous peoples, since they were in a prickly position to balance creating a compelling fiction story while also adequately representing the experiences of groups who have had few opportunities to share their story. Regarding the balance of authentically portraying versus fictionalizing indigenous groups, as Guerra explains in his interview, since many of the plants, myths, and customs of tribes are sacred, the indigenous didn’t want them mentioned by name, creating a natural opportunity for Guerra and Toulemonde to fictionalize and conflate elements to create the yakruna plant and the tribe from which Karamakate is from.
Finally, hearing Toulemonde comment that screenings for indigenous Amazonian audiences have been overwhelmingly positive leaves me feeling content. In interviews Guerra discusses how the actors to play the protagonists were found when scouting locations in the Amazon and engaging with communities, and the open invitations offered to these communities is only fitting for a project of this nature. It seems perfectly appropriate that the indigenous tribes supporting production of the film performed rituals to ask the environment to allow the filming to take place. As often as we think of films as self-contained works, the process behind El abrazo de la serpiente and its direct participation in customs of indigenous Amazonians further complements the goals of the film to spark dialogue on forms of colonialism, both in the past and present.
Image source: bacanika.com