In Embrace of the Serpent, the first Colombian feature ever to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at next week's Academy Awards, a man helps two scientists through the Amazon jungle, 40 years apart. Each is looking for the same thing: yakruna, a sacred plant with incredible healing powers. The man, Karamakate, is an Indigenous shaman and the last of his people.
Director Ciro Guerra based his story on the diaries of explorers Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evan Schultes. "I was struck by the fact that these journals were basically a story about knowledge," he says. "About the search for knowledge, its limits, its dangers. And how for the first time the Indigenious people were treated by scientists as equals."
In another first, Embrace of the Serpent was the first shoot in the Colombian Amazon in 30 years. Planning the black-and-white production was less about forms and permits than acceptance from its true inhabitants. "The most important thing for us was to have permission from the Indigenious people that live there," says Guerra. "It's their sacred land. We explained to them what we wanted to do, we invited them to be a part of it in every way."
Before shooting began, a shaman performed a ritual, asking the jungle to allow Guerra's team to proceed, and it responded in kind. "We felt the jungle was helping us make the movie," he says. "We didn't have any of the accidents we were prepared for—no diseases, no one was bitten by anything, the weather co-operated. The only time it would rain was when we would break for lunch."
As each set of men head down the river, they come across horrors: Rubber thieves, abandoned kids and a Colonel Kurtz-like man calling himself the messiah. It also becomes clear that neither scientist is looking for yakruna with honest intentions. "The Colombian Amazon has always been the subject of great greed. It's so rich and full of natural resources," says Guerra. "Rubber, then oak, then coca for the drug dealers, now it's mining companies. There's always something. The thing that we need to understand is to leave the people of the Amazon alone, let them decide their own fate."
Embrace of the Serpent
Friday, February 19, 7pm, $7 Carbon Arc Cinema, 1747 Summer Street