INTERVIEW: Ciro Guerra, Writer/Director Of Oscar-Nominated ‘Embrace Of The Serpent’

The Colombian filmmaker talked with our critic about his films, what makes for great cinema, the amazing locations in 'Serpent', his Oscar experience and more

Ciro Guerra is having a good month. The Colombian-born filmmaker recently attended his first Oscar ceremony, where his newest film, “Embrace Of The Serpent,” was nominated in the foreign language category (it lost to “Son Of Saul”). Beyond being a personally momentous occasion for the young writer/director, who celebrated his 35th birthday in February, the Academy Award nomination was the first ever for his native country.

Describing his experience at the ceremony as “quite fun and quite crazy” during our interview on Skype, he says the Academy made them feel welcome and that he was thankful to meet so many people in the industry he’s admired for a long time. “We we’re kind of relieved we didn’t win,” he said. “There was a favorite going in and it’s great not to be the favorite. It can be a lot of pressure. Even winning can be a lot of pressure. So we just made the best of it and enjoyed it.”

I really can’t praise “Embrace Of The Serpent” enough. It’s one of those films that captures the imagination with a grip that doesn’t loosen until the credits have ended. Make sure to seek out the film when it opens exclusively this Friday at Living Room Theaters. Its two-pronged narrative ping-pongs back and forth (sometimes in the same unbroken take) between events 40 years apart in the life of Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his people. He encounters and travels with two scientists, one inspired by the other to search the Amazon for a sacred healing plant. (While by no means a “true story,” much of the film is inspired by the diaries of German Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American Richard Evans Schultes)

The black and white visuals, druggy hallucination sequences, performances, and a killer soundtrack—ancient tribal music mixed with the natural cacophony of the jungle—all make for an incredibly immersive, funny and beautiful rumination on dying, colonialism and being the last of one’s kind. It’s truly a film to go get lost in at the cinema.

Guerra, whose previous film, “The Wind Journeys,” is also highly recommended (I was able to rent the DVD at Movie Madness in fact), was generous with his time over Skype, talking with me for more than 40 minutes. Suffice to say it was fairly in depth, focusing mostly on his latest film and his work overall, but also making room to talk about what makes for great cinema (you know, the kind you see at an actual movie theater), the gorgeously epic Amazonian locations where they shot ‘Serpent’, and much more. Below are a few excerpted highlights from our chat. If you’d like to hear the entire interview, you can do so by streaming or downloading the embedded podcast below.

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one of many memorable images from “Embrace of the Serpent”

“Embrace Of The Serpent” is filled with so many great, memorable cinematic sequences. In particular, the moment when you link both storylines from different time periods in one fluid take.

In the early versions of the script, it was a very Western script in the way everything was explained and all the dates and locations were perfectly clear. Then I started working with the Amazonian people, and I realized their conception of time is completely different. Film is essentially a medium of time. That’s the clay we work on with cinema, it’s made up of fragments of time. I realized what would make the movie special and unique would be that it was told from that perspective. And that included this different understanding of time, that time is not a linear sequence, which is how we are taught to experience it. Amazonian people, and shamans especially, see it more as a simultaneous multiplicity. Which is funnily extremely close to the way quantum physicists define time.

So I wanted the film to be an expression of that. In Amazonian storytelling past, present and future intertwine and dialogues mirror each other. As the process of research went on the film became more and more imbued with this Amazonian spirit and way of storytelling. So I thought if we could create links between different times, to make them appear to be simultaneous, it would be close to the spirit of the Amazonian people. 

So the idea for the two-pronged narrative, is that also how that came about? To put the audience in the mindset of Karamakate? 

Yes. The main thing about the film is that the point of view is from the shaman. This story has usually been told from the explorers’ point of view. So we really needed to flip the story on its head. When you switch the point of view you realize that history has been told in a very one dimensional way. I think that is something cinema can do. It really can make you experience the world from a particular perspective. The perspective of Amazonian people is very difficult for us to understand and get into it. This film is an attempt to build a bridge between the storytelling that we know and can understand, and their storytelling which for us at first can be incomprehensible. This film needed to be accessible for anyone. It would have been dishonest to make this a cryptic film for a small [art film] niche.

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“Embrace Of The Serpent”

Watching the film is an incredibly immersive sensory experience. I think that’s really important for cinema today. Since most people are happy to watch everything on their TVs, computers or phones, it’s more important than ever that a film deserves to be up on a big screen to get people out of their house and going to the theater. “Embrace Of The Serpent” is truly a big movie and belongs there. 

I agree totally with you. I think the cinema should be an experience. The effect that cinema can have on the senses is something I think no other art form can come close to it. For me it’s always very important that the films… that you can really feel where you are. They have a strong sense of place. And the tools of cinema allow you to do that, to put you in there.

The sound design and overall look of the film is incredible. Can you talk about some of those sensorial elements and how you conceived and executed them? 

The sound design is the creation of Carlos García, a brilliant sound designer. We had this concept of creating a trance-like state through the sound. Using the sounds of nature and its frequencies in a way that would take the viewer in a trance like, or a spiritual state. It’s the state that Amazonian people use to tell their stories. You are sort of elevated by the sound. You do that only using the frequencies of the natural environment. That creates a feeling that can only be experienced completely in a cinema.

The look of the film [cinematography by David Gallego] is inspired by the images the explorers took during their travels. When I went there I realized it was not going to be possible to portray the colors of the Amazon on film. Especially what they mean to the people there. These are people who have 15 words for what we call green. I thought this way we could trigger the audience’s imagination. The Amazon that you see in the film is not the real one, it’s an imagined Amazon. But that imagined Amazon is certainly going to be more real than what we could portray.

“Embrace Of The Serpent” opens at Friday March 11 at Portland’s Living Room Theaters. Advance tickets are available now. 

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