“I’m not much of a writer,” confessed writer/director Ciro Guerra, who can’t be faulted for this, given his facility for beautiful imagery. “To me the films are journals of my emotional and spiritual travels. When I’m watching them, they’re like a journal of who I was at that moment and what I was going through.”
Though he poured over the journals of the German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American biologist Richard Evans Schultes in order to tell a story inspired by their travels along the Amazon a generation apart in the recently Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent,” Guerra did not keep one himself during its making, though in daring to travel to parts of his native Colombia that are anathema to all but indigenous tribes that have lived along the Amazon for centuries, he accomplishes the unusual feat of documenting history while making some of his own.
While the ability to capture gorgeous swaths of land that have been largely untouched by man would make “Serpent” a marvel on its own, it’s how Guerra marries together the separate journeys of adventurers Theodor (“Borgman” star Jan Bijvoet) and Evan (Brionne Davis) through their pursuit of Yakruna, a plant said to have healing powers, and their guide Karamakate (Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar, in his young and later life, respectively) that pushes it towards transcendence. Eloquently conveying the contradictory tension inherent in exploration, the film raises the question of where is the line between exploitation and historical responsibility, finding them occasionally interlinked as the two ethnographers can return from their sojourns able to tell the world about what they’ve discovered when entire communities might remain unknown otherwise yet reappropriating cultural totems as their own.
For Guerra, the journey may have been only slightly less treacherous than his forebears, then again, he had a camera crew to consider as he waded into the jungle, sure to show his deep respect for the whims of the harsh environment and those who make their home there, making a particularly special effort to train those he met along the way to act in the film and incorporating nine different tribal languages into the story for his actors to speak. As Guerra and Davis explained in an interview while in Los Angeles before the film’s release, the setting humbled them and reshaped their perspective, just as they hope giving a glimpse of these unseen communities will do for audiences.
Ciro Guerra: It’s half of my country, but it’s the hidden half, the part that we don’t know anything about. I just wanted to take the journey into the unknown and there’s nothing more unknown than that place for us. I felt the place calling me for some reason but I could not imagine why.
For Brionne, this appears to be even more unknown. Was it a different experience not only to be in a foreign place but to portray this time in history?
Brionne Davis: Yeah, in a lot of ways. I depicted real characters on stage, but not necessarily in film. That in itself was an obligation that I had to give justice to, and I’ve shot in extreme conditions like the desert but traveling to the Amazon was something that my life hadn’t prepared me for. When I was growing up in Oklahoma, I spent a lot of time in the Ozarks, so I was geared up for the experience, but certainly challenged by the the [Huitoto 00:01:18] language. Not only did I have an obligation to the film, but [I felt also] to the voice of these people who influenced my character by speaking their language. I would be writing 10 hours a day and it would take me three hours to learn just a phrase. Luckily, they brought me down early enough to really grab hold of the language and then it was memorization.
From what I’ve heard, you couldn’t cast this in a traditional way because of how you traveled during the shoot. Would you find people along the way and fit the screenplay to them?
Ciro Guerra: The script is not written in stone. Usually, when I’ve had the actors that can play the characters, they usually bring something and I try to rework the film towards that. For this particular film, it wasn’t about seeing a lot of people and finding the [right one]. Honestly, the only people who could have played these characters are the ones you see in the film. Each of them was brought [to the film] by coincidence, a special connection, or serendipity in ways that I cannot really fully understand.
The European and American actors who came in had a level of commitment and passion that [went beyond] saying “yes” to come to Colombia and do a film in the jungle, but also do an indigenous language, something that very few actors I’ve ever seen have. As for the indigenous characters, I spent a lot of time looking for them since they seemed like people that didn’t exist anymore. Certainly, when we found them, [we would find ways to incorporate them into the story] because they were so close to the characters but they also had such a special, unbelievable presence that no one else had. If they had said “no,” the film would not have been possible. Fortunately, they were very enthusiastic and they also brought a lot of their own experience into the script. If there was something they weren’t comfortable with or they felt that wasn’t true, they would just not do it. They came in and helped us make the story as true as possible.
Is it true you had a shaman that came with you to perform ceremonies?
Ciro Guerra: He gave the crew a very special protection before the start of shooting – the ritual that he performed has to be done privately, [where] he speaks to the jungle and explains to the jungle why it’s important That we were doing what we wanted to do and asked the jungle for its protection, which is what we got.
In a way, that ties into one of the things I enjoyed about the film – this tension of the encroachment of a Western explorer who want to protect their culture and in order to preserve it, the community needs an outsider to come in and document it. Was that relatable for you in telling this story?
Ciro Guerra: It’s a very complex relationship and I’m drawn to stories that cannot be summed up as good versus evil, but show the complexity of life and relationships. This was a moment in which for the first time, thanks to the work of these explorers, the native people of the Amazon were seen as human. Before that, they were seen as subhuman and their traditional knowledge was reduced to superstition or folklore, [with the idea that they] have something to say to the modern man [being] very new and very risky. The film had to be faithful to the true history of the Amazon and this conflict because it’s important for us to see what these people have gone through and what their knowledge has survived.
You’ve said that you actually read Theodor’s journals first. How did these parallel stories first connect for you?
Ciro Guerra: I wanted the film to be told from indigenous perspective and that meant finding a way into the indigenous way of thinking for an audience. Reading the journals of Koch-Grunberg, I found Koch-Grunberg followed in the footsteps of [Robert Schomburgk], another German explorer who had been there 30 years before. He was in a couple of places where he had been and he spent some time in a community on the border of Colombia and Venezuela [the tribe there] kept talking to him about this myth over and over again. After a while, [Schomburgk] realized that this German explorer [Robert] Schomburgk had been turned into a myth by them and [Koch-Grunberg] was the same person coming back, after a time, to visit — the same soul living through different men. For me, that was a revelation because it was an Amazonian myth that we could understand and could be relatable.
I was fascinated by reading of the journal of [Richard Evans] Schultes, especially by the impact that he had. He was read by all the writers of the Beat Generation and had a big influence on all the counterculture of the 1950s and ‘60s — the Hippie movement, the Psychedelia movement, the first Ecological movement. It was because he transmitted knowledge for the first time that had only been previously reserved for the indigenous people, so I wanted to bring him into the story and the fact that he was working at a time when the World War was going on. All these elements just clicked for me and he was also following in the footsteps of Koch-Grunberg, so everything came together in the way only fiction can.
Did you actually go on the journey that the characters take as research before shooting?
Ciro Guerra: No, Koch-Grunberg’s journey step by step would take years and I have the soul of an explorer but not the body of one [laughs], but I did go to many of the places and talk to many of the people who were involved.
Ciro Guerra: Those quiet dialogue scenes in the river were actually the most difficult scenes to shoot, even more than the action scenes that were more complex. Synchronizing the camera boat, the sound boat, and the boat where the actors were with the weather and the environment and the flow of the river it was incredibly difficult. It looks so smooth on screen, but it was tremendously awkward behind it. Every camera angle, there’s was stress behind the camera with the current. Thankfully, we didn’t have any accidents.
Brionne Davis: While they were all trying to figure out all the camera angles, there were so many moments where I, in particular, toward the end, would be in the canoe by myself and I got to have all this freedom while they were trying to do all those complex camera shots. My participation in that was just patience but when you get to look around you and you have the river as massive and as black as it is, and the jungle, and the mountains, it’s just extraordinary and you get to go, “This is my life. This is where I get to be right now,” and there’s something phenomenally magical and validating about that. Then on our trips back, it would either be clear and at night, [you felt like] you can grab hold of the stars, or it would be raining on top of you like crazy and we’re all huddled in the thing and [we’re] passing around whiskey. There was just this bond that you’re forced to create with your compadres where it becomes a family and you need each other for survival.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Brionne Davis: Every day was nuts – you never knew. If you give yourself over to the Amazon, which is a philosophy in the film, and to the spirit of the universe, the Spirit of the Amazon will guide you. If you try to control or manipulate it or get frustrated with it, it’s going to show you things that you can’t anticipate.
Ciro Guerra: Every day was an adventure. You never knew what was going to happen and we were open to that. There were many things that happened magically in front of the camera. You know the final scene with Brionne and the butterflies – that wasn’t in the script. We had this unbelievable moment in which it started to rain on camera …
Brionne Davis: And it was dry on the canoe.
Ciro Guerra: Those kinds of things you cannot plan. There were surprises but always good ones thanks to the Spirit of the Amazon that was helping us and supporting us.
Is it true you also brought in a co-writer to help ease the translation for Western audiences?
Ciro Guerra: No, it wasn’t for that. After working two-and-a-half years on the script, I was absolutely lost. The script was a mess because there’s so much going on and I got lost trying to make the translation. Finally, when I found my way to the indigenous world, I lost all connection to the narrative. I had a co-screenwriter, who is a close friend of mine, come and he was able to see the script from outside and help me put it together. Together, we wrote the last draft but before that, I had spent too much time working alone and I had lost perspective on the script.
The film is a bitch, but you see the Amazon, itself, doesn’t fit into film — or a thousand films — and this film, I hope, creates a bridge between what an artist can understand and feel and what it is. In the end, I hope it will spark your curiosity and that you will be open to learning more.
“Embrace of the Serpent” opens on February 17th in New York at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and on February 19th in Los Angeles at the NuArt Theater. More theaters and dates can be found here.