SERPENT Director’s Trek to Amazon Takes Spiritual Turn

by Denise Zmekhol

Although Colombia’s Embrace of the Serpent didn’t win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film – that went to Hungary’s Son of Saul Serpent and its director, Ciro Guerra, won a host of critical plaudits and audience acclaim. Recently, Denise Zmekhol interviewed the filmmaker for EatDrinkFilms.

Denise Zmekhol for EDF: What inspired you to make this film?


Ciro Guerra: The Amazon, for us in Colombia, is the biggest mystery. It is completely unknown to us. For me, making a film there was a life-long dream. The scientific works of two explorers (Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes) that we used for the film were our guides. When I was doing research on the Amazon, I came upon the diaries and I thought there was so much similarity between what the explorers used to do — taking a leap into unknown territory, leaving everything behind and just going into it for years — to what happens when you make a film. You are travelling into uncharted territory: you don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know how it’s going to come out, and you don’t know how long it’s going to take. So I strongly relate to that and also to the scientists’ hunger for knowledge, and their curiosity. I think curiosity is my main driving force. For me, curiosity is the most important thing a human being can have.

serpentart2EDF: How much of the story was inspired by the travel diaries and how much was your own creation?

CG: The film should be considered a work of fiction. The journals were our starting point. But the film is also very much inspired by Amazonian myths and the Amazonian way of understanding knowledge. The yakruna plant is a fictional creation. We were working together with the indigenous communities, especially the shamans, and they requested that we not use the real names of plants, because those things are sacred and shouldn’t be communicated through a film.

EDF: Since the film was guided by the travel diaries of two explorers, why did you choose to tell the story from Karamakates’ point of view?

CG: 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.

serpentart6So I started to follow their tracks and tried 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 realized 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.

serpentart3EDF: Your film is very poetic and beautifully shot. Why did you shoot it in 35mm black and white?

CG: The film was also inspired by the images—the photographic plates, almost daguerreotype images—that the explorers took. When I saw those images, they were very striking because what you see there is completely different from the Amazon that has been exposed to commerce and tourism. It is an Amazon that is completely devoid of exuberance, of exoticism, and it just feels like a different world, a different time speaking to you through those images. So, we wanted the film to capture that feeling.

When I went there I realized it was not going to be possible to portray the colors of the Amazon in a way that really conveys what that means to the indigenous people. They have over 50 different words for what we call green. I decided I was going to let the audience imagine that. When you see the world in this manner, there is not this idea that nature is green and man is something else. Every person, every animal, every drop of water, every fish, everything, seems to be made of the same material—that is completely in line with the way that indigenous people see the world. There are so many reasons we did the film in black and white, it’s just not possible to give one or two answers. The film had to be that way. If I had had to do the film in color, I would have preferred not to do the film at all.

serpentart1EDF: Can you talk about the process of finding the actors for Karamakate and other indigenous peoples?

CG: We found them in the region where we shot. It was difficult to find virgin forest because really it’s not easy to find jungle unaffected by agriculture, livestock, commerce, tourism. Once we found our location, we started walking through the region, passing through communities and inviting everyone to join us. They were very enthusiastic. Everyone wanted to participate. They were very considerate. They only asked that we be transparent and not have hidden motives. The people participated without doubt. Once we found those indigenous actors, we had a space of three months to teach them about acting and movies.  These people may not have training in theater or experience in something like cinema or television or whatever, but they have the ability to listen, and they have the ability to listen for real. And it’s very difficult to find an actor that can listen for real.

serpentqaart3EDF: How many native languages were spoken in the film?

CG: Four: Huitoto, Tikuna, Wanano, Cubeo, and a few words of the Okaina language, which is almost extinct.

EDF: What part of Amazon did you shoot?

CG: Northwest Amazonia; the Vaupés region, near the border of Colombia and Brazil.

serpentart9EDF: Did the script change as you spent more time in the Amazon. If so, how?

CG: At first I was worried about being faithful to historical and scientific fact, but later I realized it was more important to let it go and immerse myself in imagination, in dream. I started to lose my Western logic and tried to embrace another logic. I wanted the film to feel like an indigenous story, like an Amazonian myth. But Amazonian myth is, for us, almost incomprehensible. Its narrative logic absolutely opposes ours.  So the film is an attempt to build a bridge between our ways of storytelling.

serpentqaart1EDF: What were your biggest challenges and your best moments while filming in the Amazon?

CG: 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 us 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.

DeniseZmekholDenise Zmekhol is an award-winning producer and director. She creates documentary films, commercials, and innovative transmedia projects. Zmekhol’s Children of the Amazon, a PBS feature documentary, takes you on a journey into the Amazon in search of the indigenous children she had photographed 15 years earlier. Her work has been recognized for its unique visual style, deft storytelling, empathy, and elegance. Denise co-produced and co-directed Digital Journey, a 39-part Emmy Award winning public television series exploring emerging technologies. She is currently a co-producer on Amir Soltani’s Dogtown Redemption, a film about poverty and recyclers in West Oakland. Learn more at her website for ZD Films.
Read our Critics Corner for two reviews Embrace of the Serpent.
The Oscar nominated movie is currently showing at theaters across the North America.

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