Embrace of the Serpent is a 2015 film by Colombian director Ciro Guerra that shows two anthropological journeys into the Colombian Amazon. It cuts between two timelines, 1909 and 1940, to show two journeys up the Colombian Amazon by Western researchers Theo and, later, Evan—who are based on ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg and ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. In the film, the two journeys are connected through the single character, Karamakate, a shaman and their guide. Karamakate is one of the surviving members of a fictionalised tribe, who have access to powerful medicinal plants, that Theo believes he needs to survive. The film blends Amazonian mythology with the diaries and writings of the Koch-Grünberg and Evans Shultes, depicting these journeys from the indigenous point of view as much as the explorers’. In an interview Guerra says that,
in order for the film to be true to that [the indigenous point of view], I had to stop being faithful to the “truth” because, to them, ethnographic, anthropological, and historical truths were as fictional as imagination and dream, which for them was valid. (Guerra, 2016)
Guerra worked with local indigenous communities in the writing and production of the film and, after the film’s premiere in Venice, it was screened a number of times in the Colombian Amazon. The film is spoken in nine languages, one of which, Ocaina is only spoken by sixteen people, and Guerra says that it was a powerful experience for them to see their language represented on the screen (Guerra, 2016).
Embrace of the Serpent, while a kind of parable or mythological story, gives a complex depiction of field relationships between the two social scientists and their indigenous interlocutors. They are characters that are sympathetic to the indigenous Amazonians, with Guerra on stating that Koch-Grünberg was, “the first to refer to the indigenous people in humanistic terms as the people of the Amazon” (Guerra, 2016). And they are shown in a very good light in comparison to the other Europeans of the film, who are either missionaries or rubber barons. The gravely ill Theo travels with Manduca, who is local and loyal to Theo because he payed out Manduca’s debt to the rubber plantation. Yet both Theo and Evans, as characters, have a ‘dark’ side to them, they are conceited and can’t full empathise with the local tribes and, at times, their attempt to extract knowledge without considering the indigenous perspective emerges.
In one scene, a tribe that Theo has visited before, and seems to be on good terms with, steals his compass. He confronts them and grabs one of the children pushing him to try and get it back.
Karamakate: You’re nothing but a white
Theo: Their orientation system is based on the winds and the position of the stars. If they learn how to use a compass, that knowledge will be lost.
Karamakate: You cannot forbid them to learn. Knowledge belongs to all men. But you can’t understand that, because you’re just a white.
Here Theo’s obsession with maintaining the purity of ‘traditional’ local knowledge turns into a form of paternalism, in which he feels he knows what they should want or need better than they do.
Embrace of the Serpent skilfully balances the complexity of representing historical anthropological research. It depicts multiple relationships that developed and change between the characters, as individuals not just archetypes, throughout these journeys. Manduca and Karamakate are not simply victims, rather they choose to help the white interlopers and, for good and bad, feel like these researchers were their best shot at telling their stories to the colonisers and capitalists that were destroying their communities.
Guerra doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable actions and opinions of the researchers, and yet, these relationships are never ‘black and white’. Well, in a literal sense, they actually are because the film is shot using black and white 35mm film. The decision to shoot without colour was originally inspired by seeing the old daguerreotype photographic plates, which were “devoid of exuberance and exoticism”, and then going to the Amazonian jungle Guerra realised that colour film couldn’t begin to really represent the multiple colours there (Guerra, 2016). It also has another effect, which I found shone through when watching the film:
“[W]hen I talked to the Amazonian people, I realized that with black-and-white images there was no difference between nature being green and us being something else. Every human, every bird, every drop of water is made up the same in black and white so it was perfectly coherent. ” (Guerra, 2016)
Embrace of the Serpent 2015, video recording, Ciudad Lunar Producciones, Colombia. Directed by C Guerra
Guerra, C., 2016. Embrace of the Serpent: An Interview with Ciro Guerra [WWW Document]. Cineaste Magazine. URL https://www.cineaste.com/spring2016/embrace-of-the-serpent-ciro-guerra (accessed 6.9.19).