Embrace of the Serpent, directed by the Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra, marks the first time a Colombian film has been nominated for an Oscar. Saying that, Guerra’s film is shot in stunning black-and-white and centers around Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman who is the last survivor of his people, and two scientists who, over the course of 40 years build a friendship with him in their search of a sacred plant.
In the week leading up to the 88th Oscars, I got an opportunity to interview Ciro Guerra via skype, who gladly talked about his film, and how proud he is to represent his country at the Oscars, on February 28th, 2016.
MOVIEMOVESME: How did you feel being the first filmmaker to shoot a film in the Colombian Amazon in over thirty years?
Ciro Guerra: It was a very difficult film to make; for a long time, it felt it was an impossible film and very few people believed in the project. Having been able to make it I feel very grateful I got to spend so much time in the place with all these wonderful people of the crew and the cast and also the people who welcomed us into their world.
MOVIEMOVESME: How did the idea come to not only shoot this brilliant story in the Amazon but also in black and white?
Ciro Guerra: The film from the very beginning was inspired by the diary of this explorer who took a journey to the Colombian Amazon. Seeing those images was very striking; it wasn’t like those associated generally with tourism; it just felt like those pictures were talking to you from a different world and from a different time. When I went to the Amazon I realised it was not possible to portray the colors of the Amazon. It had to be done another way and I decided I’ll let the audience use their imagination. The Amazon you see in the film is not the real Amazon, it’s an imagined Amazon. So the colors people will imagine is going to be better than I could’ve portrayed.
MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the research you put in and how you went about putting two scientists from two different timelines and combine them into one story?
Ciro Guerra: When I first approached Amazonian storytelling and Amazonian men, it’s almost incomprehensible, so you’re very lost. So I was looking for a way to make the audience think this way. I read in the journals an anecdote, “He came following the footsteps of another explorer thereabouts 50 or 70 years before.” They were seeing in him the same man who was more or less a myth. This idea of a single journey, of a single soul traversing through the lives of different men just gave me an understanding Amazonian time and history. It was quickly incorporated into the story.
MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about your collaboration with European actors and inexperienced actors? Also what kind of support did you receive from the community?
Ciro Guerra: When we started moving around, we invited the indigenous communities to be a part of the project. We asked for their permission to shoot in places that are sacred to them. People were very enthusiastic about it. Just as long as you can carefully explain them what you want to do and that you don’t have any hidden intentions people are very collaborative. All the indigenous people playing in this film are actual indigenous people. Initially I thought explaining them how to play in a movie would be difficult but it was much easier. They were so enthusiastic and so open, the fact they were acting in their own language was so important to them that they seem like real actors on the screen. I think the bigger challenge was for the American and European actors but they accepted the challenge and we told them phonetically how to say every word, how to read every line and they just did their homework very passionately. They were very committed.
MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the Yakruna plant?
Ciro Guerra: It’s a fictional plant; it doesn’t exist. It’s what we created based on real plants. When we were collaborating with the indigenous people they asked not to use the names of real plants as it’s sacred for them. We were not looking for botanical truths but rather a deeper truth, which is what you do when you do fiction. So for us it was no problem to use it as a fictional plant.
MOVIEMOVESME: How does it feel to have been shortlisted for the Oscars and representing Colombia there?
Ciro Guerra: It’s a great honor because there were many great films from around the world. The great thing about it is that thanks to this a lot of people around the world are getting to know the film. So there are many more distribution options opening up for our film because of this exposure. So it’s fantastic, we are always looking for ways to reach new viewers and to get them excited and interested.
MOVIEMOVESME: How did your perception change after having shot a film with a civilization completely different from ours?
Ciro Guerra: It was actually not quite easy to get back to normal life after this experience. For a few years I was learning to see the world from a different point of view, so when you come back nothing is the same. I hadn’t used money for so long, it was difficult using it again!
MOVIEMOVESME: I would like to hear your opinion about Oscars being diverse or not diverse.
Ciro Guerra: I think if you’re looking for diversity, you have been looking in the wrong categories. Because if you take a look at wider spectrum of things you will find diversity, for example if you look at other categories like short documentary. I think the diversity problem is not of the Oscars, it’s a problem of films in general especially films that get wider releases and distribution. So we need films of all kinds of sensibilities, we need more films directed by people from all over the world and we need them to be seen by a wider audience. The thing of the Oscars is merely a reflection of the much bigger problem that has to change eventually.