The deadly, genocidal colonialism of Christianity and rubber
Now here’s something different. Every now and again comes a film that really stands out. Embrace of the Serpent is one of them.
It tells two linked stories, about Karamakate, a Colombian Amazon shaman who helps two Europeans, first, in the early years of last century, as a young man and later, the 1940s, as an old man most of whose knowledge has slipped from his mind.
There’s a fourth character, a local man, who unlike Karamakate in his loin pouch and feathers, wears shirt and trousers and speaks the white man’s language.
Yes, it’s about colonialism – the intolerant, vicious, deadly, genocidal colonialism of Christianity and rubber.
But director Ciro Guerra tries to look at it from indigenous people’s viewpoint, which gives the story more bite than it would have were it merely about white men having adventures in the jungle (though it’s that, too).
The most telling exchange comes after one of the explorers tries to snatch back his stolen compass, claiming that such devices will undermine local ways of knowledge.
“You cannot forbid them to learn,” retorts Karamakate – an Amazonian retort that echoes the old British colonial dislike of the uppity natives. Conversely, the dreaded white men need to take in the wisdom of the forest-dwellers: “How many sides do you think this river has?”
That said, there’s an ill-fitting Heart of Darkness/ Lord of the Flies scene, and a final psychedelic episode - where the black and white film bursts into colour - that won’t be to everyone’s taste, though it’s the culmination of the search for a rare plant with medicinal and hallucinatory qualities.
The plot was inspired by two books by European explorers that provided rare accounts of Amazonian cultures. As Guerra says, “The explorers have told their story. The natives haven’t. This is it. A land the size of a whole continent, yet untold. Unseen by our own cinema.”
Does he succeed? Antonio Bolivar Salvador (old Karamakate) says,“It is a film that shows the Amazon, the lungs of the world, the greater purifying filter and the most valuable of indigenous cultures. That is its greatest achievement.” Salvador is himself one of the last living members of the Ocaina people of the Colombian Amazon.
The verdict of Nilbio Torres (young Karamakate) is: “What Ciro is doing with this film is an homage to the memory of our elders, in the time before: the way the white men treated the natives, the rubber exploitation. I’ve asked the elders how it was and it is as seen in the film, that’s why we decided to support it. For the elders and myself it is a memory of the ancestors and their knowledge.”
Seeing this film will give you plenty to think about and a lot to enjoy. It will stick in your mind.
+ DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT
Whenever I looked at a map of my country, I was overwhelmed by great uncertainty. Half of it was an unknown territory, a green sea, of which I knew nothing.
The Amazon, that unfathomable land, which we foolishly reduce to simple concepts. Coke, drugs, Indians, rivers, war.
Is there really nothing more out there? Is there not a culture, a history? Is there not a soul that transcends?
The explorers taught me otherwise.
Those men who left everything, who risked everything, to tell us about a world we could not imagine. Those who made first contact, During one of the most vicious holocausts man has ever seen. Can man, through science and art, transcend brutality? Some men did.
The explorers have told their story. The natives haven’t.
This is it. A land the size of a whole continent, yet untold. Unseen by our own cinema.
That Amazon is lost now. In the cinema, it can live again.
+ AN INTERVIEW WITH CIRO GUERRA
This production imposed challenges for its director that probably no other film of his will ever match. There were many moments in which it seemed giving up was the only option, not only due to the difficulties of financing and making the film, but also while facing the mystery that he encountered as he went deeper into the Amazon jungle.
“As we finished the first week of shooting, a deep concern came over me,” Guerra wrote in a journal, not unlike the ones of the explorers whose stories inspired the film. “The complications were too great, the schedule was too tight. It became clear, crystal clear, that finishing this movie was impossible. We had dreamt too big, we had aimed too far. We had been sinfully optimistic, and the gods and the jungle were about to punish us. With this clarity, like the sailor who is the first to notice that the vessel is sinking, I sat down and prepared for the inevitable. But then, what I witnessed was how a miracle came into being.”
Where does this story come from?
It came from a personal interest in learning about the world of the Colombian Amazon, which is half the country, and yet it remains hidden and unknown, even though I’ve lived in Colombia all my life.
I feel that we’ve turned our backs on this knowledge and this way of understanding the world. It’s so underestimated, and yet so fundamental. But when you start to study and research it, you do it through the eyes of the explorers, who are always European or North American. They were the ones who came and gave us news about our own country.
I wanted to tell a story about these encounters, but from a new perspective, in which the protagonist wasn’t the white man as usual, but the native. This changes the entire perspective and renews it. We wanted to be able to tell this story in a way that was true to their experience, yet was relatable to any other person on the planet.
The story is told in two different times, based on the diaries of two explorers who never met. How was the process of writing and how did you find the narrative thread to tell this story?
There’s an idea in many of the texts that explore the indigenous world that speaks of a different concept of time. Time to them is not a line, as we see it in the West, but a series of multiple universes happening simultaneously. It is a concept that has been referred to as “time without time” or “space without space.”
I thought it connected with the stories of the explorers, who wrote about how one of them came to the Amazon following the footsteps of another explorer before him, and when he would encounter the same indigenous tribe, he would find that the previous explorer had been turned into myth. To the natives, it was always the same man, the same spirit, visiting them over and over again. This idea of a single life, a single experience, lived through the bodies of several men, was fascinating to me, and I thought it would make a great starting point for the script. It gave us a perspective of the indigenous way of thinking, but also connected with the viewer who could understand these men who come from our world, and through them, we could slowly begin to see the vision of the world of Karamakate.
With all that’s happened, how do you feel about the relationship with the native communities and how did they react to the production?
The native communities were very open and immensely helpful. Amazonian people are very warm, funny, with a lot of heart. They are obviously careful at the beginning, while they figure out what your true intentions are, because for a long time people who have come do so in order to pillage and hurt. But once they realize that you’re not a threat, they are very enthusiastic and we were very happy to work together with them.
What we are doing is rescuing the memory of an Amazon that no longer exists—that is not what it was before. Hopefully this film will create this image in the collective memory, because characters like Karamakate—this breed of wise, warrior-shamans—are now extinct. The modern native is something else, there is much knowledge that still remains, but most of it is now lost, many cultures, languages. This knowledge has been passed on through oral tradition, it’s never been written, and from my personal experience, trying to approach it was kind of humiliating, because it is not something you can aspire to understand in a short time like you do in school or college. It is related to life, generations, natural cycles; it really is a gigantic wall of knowledge that you can only admire and maybe try to scratch its surface.
The only way to learn it is by living it, and living it for many, many years. We can only hope that this film sparks some curiosity in the viewers: a desire to learn, respect, and protect this knowledge which I think is invaluable for the modern world.
It is not a matter of folklore or ancient cultures but of a wisdom that has answers to many of the questions that people today have: from how to achieve balance with nature, making the best use of its resources without ravaging them, and looking for harmony not only between man and nature, but between all the different ways of being human that exist. Reaching this equilibrium is a way to achieve happiness—a type of happiness that the current political and social systems are not capable of offering.
Has this process of research and knowledge of these cultures changed your perception of the world in any way?
In every way. I am a different person now than when this process started. I think all of us who made this movie feel the same way. You learn to swim in this gigantic flow and everyday it brings new things, new visions. We saw how everything has knowledge, from the rock to the tree, the insect or the wind, and we learned to find happiness in that. It’s a change in perspective.
It’s difficult for us, having been born and raised in the capitalist system, to change our lives. But we approached another form of existing, and it’s comforting to know that there’s not just one way to be human. Discovering the beauty in the other, and learning and respecting that, is still important.
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