Q&A: Director Ciro Guerra On His Oscar-Nominated Film Embrace Of The Serpent

The filmmaker on collaborating with Amazonian tribes and how he learned to ask the jungle for permission.

The first narrative film to be shot in the Colombian Amazon in over 30 years, director Ciro Guerra’s Oscar-nominated film Embrace of the Serpent is the story of Karamakate, a hermetic shaman of the lost Cohiuano tribe. Karamakate is enlisted first as a young man and then as an old man to aid a pair of white European scientists as they search for a rare plant, the yakruna, a hallucinogenic flower that grows from rare rubber trees. Karamakate is played by Antonio Bolivar and Nilbio Torres, two Amazonian natives, and just two of the many indigenous collaborators on this film. Reflecting that spirit of respect and collaboration, Embrace of the Serpent centers on its Amazonian protagonist without fetishizing him, and the film is both an honest exploration of the possibilities and dangers of cultural exchange and a thrilling journey into one of the last places on earth where nature has yet to be tainted.

The film is based on explorers Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes and the accounts they recorded during their time in Amazon. These accounts are among the only records of the existence of Amazonian tribes who have since been wiped out by either environmental destruction or by the loss of their old knowledge systems as Western culture seeped deeper into the jungle. However, history doesn’t bind this film; instead, it becomes just one source of the action onscreen. As the characters venture deeper and deeper into the Amazonian jungle, Serpent leaves Western knowledge behind to delve deeper and deeper into the Amazonian realm of myth, allegory, and potential.

Distributed by indie film stalwart Oscilloscope Labs, Embrace of the Serpent’s opening box office last week was the best of any foreign language film released in the last year. Now, as the film looks to expand throughout the country, MTV sat down with Ciro Guerra, the filmmaker who made it all possible, to talk about diversity, the connection between Amazonian shamans and quantum physics, and the new worlds that present themselves when you open your imagination to people whose perspective might differ from your own.

So the Oscars are this weekend, and you’re among the nominees for Best Foreign Film. Alongside Theeb, which is the Jordanian Foreign Film nominee, Embrace of the Serpent is one of only two narrative features nominated that has a non-white protagonist. Your film deals directly with the history, the paradoxes, and the possibilities that are born from cultural exchange. Since this is a moment when American cultural exchange is woefully lacking, I was hoping you’d be able to talk a little bit about the value of making art in collaboration with people who have a different perspective and a different history from your own.

I think that's something we can do when we're making cinema in places that are not where we usually see films. Once you get in touch with people who have experienced another side of a common narrative, we realize that history has only been told from one side, and we can offer a new perspective on that history. Amazonian people have such a hugely different view on all aspects of life and understanding and knowledge and storytelling, we become aware of a refreshing and new experience. The question is, and the challenge becomes, how do you communicate that to audiences who are not used to other forms of storytelling?

How did you work to make an inclusive environment on set? Obviously there are several cast members who are tribe members, but I was hoping you could elaborate on how members of indigenous communities contributed to the conceptual process of making this film — the script, the characters, the design, things like that.

We first came to [members of indigenous communities] while we were doing research, and we invited them to be a part of the film. We started working together in the story. They translated the original script into their languages, and in that process, the script was rewritten completely. As I spent more time with them, the screen became imbued with their voices, with a myth almost, with a different conception of the world. What started as a very Western script became a very Amazonian movie.

These people were part of the crew as well. Heads of departments were from different parts of Colombia and other countries, but most of our crew was made up of indigenous people. They worked in the arts department, dressing, in makeup, set decoration, and cinematography. Many pieces of wardrobe, for example, were made by them especially for the film. But their most important role, for me, was as guides to working in [the] Amazon. This is a very special place, and you can't just try to bring the logic of foreign production here. These people guided us to their way of relating to this environment. They gave us their spiritual interpretation, their spiritual guidance, and they taught us how to ask the jungle for its permission, and how to be respectful of the environment. Because if you go against this environment, it will destroy you immediately.

I think within at least America’s creative culture, cultural exchange is a fraught conversation. There is also real unresolved history because of the legacy of ethnographers who were maybe less willing to listen than the ones you imagine in your film, and also because our current structures of financial reward persistently favor stories that place the white colonial perspective at the center. Was that tension around cultural exchange something you felt aware of while making the film?

Yes, it was a process. We wanted to have very little impact on the communities, and we wanted to be sure whatever impact we had wasn’t negative in any way. In the beginning, I thought I was going to work with people living in what was basically voluntary isolation, people living in the most remote areas with very little contact with the outside world. I thought that they were going to be the right people for these parts. Once I started working with and spending more time with them, I realized that bringing our production and film crew there could be harmful. These are people who don't handle money. Their way of living is very fragile, and a process like this could very easily disrupt their way of life. Instead, we went back and worked with the villages that were closer to us, that have commerce. We wanted to work with people who were used to dealing with people from outside, or people from these outside worlds, but who also understood the concept of working in the way that we do and who understood the concept of getting paid. In these communities, our impact could be a positive one because we were bringing jobs and opportunities.

And that's something that's reflected in even just the plot of the film — there are several instances when that tension between what you're bringing into the culture and what you're taking away from it is very visible. I guess another of the film’s central relationships is the boundary in this film between history and myth, which here is pretty fluid. What do you think is the relationship between the past and the imagination?

Amazonian people just see it so differently. We think of the past as something that’s behind us and the future in front of us, but for many Amazonian people, it's the opposite. The past is in front of you because the past is what you can see and what you can know. You walk towards it, because the future is something that is unknown and you don't know if a trap is waiting for you, or what's going to happen next. So for them the past is something that guides you and the future is something that you need to be aware of. It can be dangerous, whereas the past is sort of what holds you together. Shamans, for example, don’t recognize time as the linear sequence that we see; instead, they see a simultaneous multiplicity going on, which is extremely close to the way that quantum physicists understand time. It's fascinating to see the parallelisms you can draw between the most advanced science and the thinking of Amazonian shamans.

Right, there's a sense that in the past any number of futures are possible and we're only living in one. That question of the past flows through the film. Embrace of the Serpent doesn’t avoid blame, and the disastrous effects that Western genocide, colonialism, even religious missionary work had on the Amazon region are all part of the narrative you’ve crafted. But at the same time, these are kind of passing visions our protagonists face on a journey that is ultimately pretty collaborative. I was curious why you chose as an artist to focus on a myth of collaborative effort rather than a more traditional, maybe more Marxist-activist-oriented take on the facts of capitalist exploitation?

These activist ideas are something that belongs to us, but the Amazonian people don't relate to them at all. They are not into guilt or blame. I didn't want to make a film about genocide, I didn't want to make a film about colonialism and its consequences. For me, that's just the backdrop of the film. This film is about knowledge, the search for knowledge and what it means to different people, its limitations, and how people of different ages of the river come together looking for it. The other figures are important for context; it's the history of the region and it’s the backdrop. This isn’t about denouncing a situation, because then you're not making cinema, you're making propaganda. This film is about the conflict of different worlds, about what happens when different spiritualities come together and clash and have dialogue.

I think it's relatively rare to see something that's trying to create a new sense of knowledge and trying to imagine new worlds.

I want to make one thing clear: Most of what the film says and what the film is, is very intuitive. It wasn't planned, it wasn't calculated. I came with a plan I thought I was going to follow, but instead the movie revealed itself to me. I decided to follow that intuition and in doing so was able to take the film to unexpected places, places that were unfamiliar. At times I didn't know how it was going to work out, but that's the excitement. If I knew the film that I was going to make before I made it, then there's no point in making it. It should be a revelation, it should be an adventure in discovering the film, through the process and through the people that you're working with, especially when you're in the Amazon. I learned that you need to let it flow. If you give up control, this process will take you to better places than where you think you can go.

I read an interview with you to prepare for this and I was excited to see you discuss the way in which the natural world is classified as female by the characters in this film. Since this is a film about creating knowledge, I was hoping you’d be able to elaborate on your sense of the feminine within this film. Sometimes movies that position men as actors and women as the spring of all things natural can feel oppressive or simplistic to me, but that was not the feeling I got from watching your movie.

During the process of research, I realized there was no way we could believably include female characters in the film. I'm not into political correction so much, I don't think you should force a movie into certain debates. The movie needs to be what it needs to be. But it's funny, as I started working with the Amazonian people I realized that the female character in the film was the jungle. And that's something that seems crazy for us in our Western way of thinking and storytelling, but it makes complete and perfect sense in the Amazon storytelling. And I started thinking how that becomes a female presence, and I started writing it as a female character. The jungle really has a huge power, and for Amazonians, the jungle is a female presence. The world itself is a female presence, because the sun is a male presence. To them, the sun is what fertilizes and the earth is what gives life, and it needs to be respected, though it usually isn’t. The earth can be violated, it can be mistreated, and once it’s had enough, its power is enough to wipe us out. Gender roles within Amazonian society are very clear, because the women are the ones that deal with the earth. They are the ones that harvest, while the men are hunting and fishing. But the earth is something that is beyond the control of men.

Do you have any advice for those who are looking for ways to imagine new paths and explore lost knowledge, but who fear misrepresenting those they seek to include?

Don't think about it too much. Rationalism is your cage. If you let go and listen and open up and are honest and true and transparent, you will find new ways. But you have to look at yourself. I had to do it for this project. When the shaman said to me, "Why do you want to do this movie?" I had to ask myself, do I want to do this movie to get awards and to make money and to be successful?

If any of the answers to those questions are yes, you should stop and go and do something else, because you're dealing with something that is greater than immediate things like that. Once I looked at myself and I realized that what I wanted to do was to learn and to share some of the things that I learned and to give a personal vision on the world, to help strengthen its bridges of communication between our worlds, then the shamans said, we believe you and we know that's what you're going to do. And it's true. That’s why I'm satisfied with the movie beyond successes. It gave me so much in making it that, while everything that’s come after has been great, it’s really not the point.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]