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Ciro Guerra's 'Embrace of the Serpent' at Cannes: A Conversation With the Colombian Director About Shamanism

05/23/2015 12:43 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2016

An unusual entry in the Cannes Fortnight, Embrace of the Serpent is a stark black-and-white journey down the Amazon in the 1900s, based on the travel journals of German Koch-Grunberg and the American explorer, Richard Evans Schultes.

The movie cuts between one explorer and the other, between 1909 and the 1941, but the parallel stories are similar: the white man, accompanied by a Shaman named Karamakate, searches for a rare sacred flower, the yakruna, which purportedly has healing powers. Along the way, each explorer witnesses first-hand the devastation that European invasion has wrecked on the Amazonian jungle, both ecologically with the exploitation of rubber, and culturally, with the domination of the Catholic Church (signified by a crazed boy-whipping friar who runs a slave camp of captured indigenous boys).

What distinguishes this film is its startling ethnographic attention to the indigenous peoples: We feel we are witnessing actual rituals and customs, down to the painted tattoos on the near-naked men's bodies. The dialogues seem urgent and real, as do the relationships between the indigenous people and the white men. All leads to a mystical revelation, which is unfortunately -- cinematographically speaking -- a low point in the movie: The hallucinated phantasmagoric images could have been much wilder. The sound design by Carlos Garcia is, however, astounding, placing you right in the jungle, second by second, with the birds and the plants. The sober black-and-white journey in the once-upon-a-time Amazonian jungle, with its rhythm of violence and fear, gets under the skin.

I met with Colombian director Ciro Guerra at the Quinzaine Beach in Cannes to discuss:

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Why is this film in black and white?

The Amazon does not exist anymore, so all we can see is the images of the explorers in their texts. I deliberately drained my movie of the exuberance and exoticism that is associated with the Amazon.

Why did you focus your story on the encounters between white people and the indigenous people, rather than just the latter?

These encounters in the jungle are the basis of the major movements that transformed the world in the twentieth century: The counter culture, the Beat generation, psychedelia, the first ecological movements. If you go back 100 years ago, nobody cared about the environment or protecting native cultures, because of the Industrial Revolution. There has been a shift in human consciousness through these encounters with the Amazon. Traditional knowledge was released. Today people care about native encounters. My story is about knowledge, the transmission of knowledge between a Western scientist and an Amazonian Shaman, two men passionate about knowledge, but there is a world between them. These two people are getting to know each other.

Why would the indigenous shaman care so much about the white man?

The reason the shaman in my movie is so concerned to help the white men is that he thinks that his purpose is to give knowledge. He has to give his knowledge to white men, because this way, and only in this way, the traditional knowledge will live on.

Why the emphasis on rubber exploitation in your film?

Rubber exploitation was one of the main reasons that Europeans came to the Amazon. 100,000 people were killed and slaved.

Why did you devote yourself to this movie?

I spent five years this movie because I wanted to take a trip to the unknown. I was tired of the Western way of life, where humans are virtual avatars instead of people. I wanted to see if there was another way of living, and I found it. I went to places where people don't need money to live, where there is always a place to sleep and a plate of food. They are an open people with a different way of being. They are so isolated, and constantly forgotten by the Colombian state.

What did you learn about native beliefs from the research you did for your film?

The indigenous peoples believe that trees have energies. Animals have energies. I would agree. We cannot see the signal coming on our cell phones; we cannot see a thought. But they exist. The natives' belief in energy makes more sense than most religions. They believe -- and I believe -- in the energies of the earth.

Who are the actors who play the Shaman in your film?

The shaman in my movie is played by two different people: Antonio Bolivar and Nilbio Torres. Antonio Bolivar is one of the last Ocaína people. There are only fifty people left. He is a farmer of coca, bananas, pineapple and yucca. Nilbio Torres is a hunter who lives on a branch of the Vaupés river, and hunts rodents, fish and birds. Today, the indigenous peoples have lost their dress, but they maintain their language and about 60 percent of the traditional knowledge of trees, and most importantly, the nature prohibitions. You are to respect the rhythms of the jungle. You have to grow and fish when it is possible, and work by cycles. This month, you can hunt this fish and not this fish.

How did making this movie change you?

I feel I shed a lot of weight; I discovered this idea that you don't be rich to be a good human person, to be connected with your own soul and with other people. There is knowledge everywhere, and everything is valuable. The equilibrium between everything is what is important in the world. The goal is to find balance in yourself. The God that the natives worship is balance. You can only live in the jungle if everything is in balance. If a fly disappears, it alters the balance.

"Embrace of the Serpent" Won the Top Prize in the Cannes Directors' Fortnight