Light, darkness and a first for Colombian cinema

We spoke to filmmaker Ciro Guerra about his Amazonian odyssey, Embrace of the Serpent.

Embrace of the Serpent

“What we filmmakers do is not that different from what storytellers do in traditional communities,” Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra explains. “It’s to gather around a fire and tell a story that illuminates lives using light and shadow: we just have different tools.”

Guerra’s film, Embrace of the Serpent, takes audiences down the Amazon river guided by Karamakate, a shaman, and a guide, who helps two western explorers in search of a sacred healing plant. Told in shining black and white, the river becomes the central motif of the film, a billowing darkness that inspires dreams and nightmares.

The first ever nominee for Colombia in the foreign language category at the Oscars, director Ciro Guerra holds to the country’s growing industry as a sign of great things to come. “While some cinema has become very repetitive, telling the same story over and over, making endless sequels and reboots” he says. “This South American cinema, Colombia in particular, is full of new stories to tell and new ways of telling them.”

Embrace of the Serpent refutes, in many ways, the traditions we have come to expect from Western cinema in terms of structure and perspective. Radically the film is not told from the point of view of western explorers but the indigenous lead, a shift inspired by two years of hands-on research in the area.

I spoke with Guerra over the phone in February.

Justine Smith: What about the Amazon river inspired you to make a film?

Ciro Guerra : Making a film in the Amazon was a lifelong dream of mine, it’s just such a big area of Columbia and still remains so alien to us. I had done two really personal films before and I wanted to get away from that and take a journey into the unknown and invite the viewer to join me on this journey. So I started doing some research on the Amazon, it’s people and it’s culture and I stumbled upon the explorers and it was like a dream. It was a fascinating story and I couldn’t believe it had never been told, it was a story about the search for knowledge, about its limits, about its dangers. When I went to the Amazon and started working together with the people there, I realized that would make the film special and unique would be to tell it from your point of view.

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JS: How do you write the environment as a character?

CR: I’m going to go into something weird so bare with me. When I started delving deep into Amazonian mythology I started to realize that actually the jungle was the female character of the film. Amazonians see the jungle as a female character, as a female force and it’s something that is very strange for us to assimilate in our narrative tradition but it makes perfect in Amazonian storytelling.

JS: The movie touches on a lot of dark subjects, but it’s ultimately optimistic. How would you describe the film’s tone?

CG: Listen, my films are not nihilist but they’re not naive either. I think cynicism is a cancer of modern society, it’s the refuge that many intelligent people take to accept situations that shouldn’t be accepted. My films usually tend to be disliked by cynics, because they are very earnest and I hope that I have three films that are free of cynicism. My films are true and come from the heart and also believe in mankind. I don’t think cinema is about proving our misery, I think it can be about curing and saving us from it.

It’s definitely not easy to remain optimistic about the world, but I prefer it to the alternative. ■

Embrace of the Serpent opens at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) on Friday, March 11. Watch the trailer here: