Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia/Argentina/Venezuela: Ciro Guerra, 2015) - Presentation for International Film Festival: Hispanic Heritage & Latinx Culture 10/19/21


A 2015 internationally produced Colombian film directed by Ciro Guerra. It is based upon the field notes & travel diaries of the German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872 - 1924) and American pioneer of the field of ethnobiology Richard Evans Schultes (1915 - 2001). I originally learned about these explorers in anthropologist/ethnobotanist Wade Davis' intoxicating recounting of his own travels in the Amazon region interspersed with a recounting of Schultes 1940s explorations. It was a favorite book of mine and I have gifted it to two students with interests in the field:

As great as I find Wade Davis' book, it had a fatal flaw, in that it was solely from the viewpoint of the European/American scholar-explorers.  While these explorers were motivated by the quest of knowledge about the people /cultures and fauna/flora of the region, we should recognize that is was in the context of a larger colonizing project. By colonizing, I mean outside powers/forces that invade an area/region in order to profit from or extract the natural resources and human labor.  It should be noted that Davis later addressed these missing perspectives, in his books/research, including Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures (National Geographic, 2001) and The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (Anansi Press, 2009). You can also see his lectures online of the importance of ancient wisdom.

I heard about Embrace of the Serpent in 2015, the year of its release, and when I watched the trailer I immediately recognized that the film was following the early explorations of Koch-Grünberg and Schultes, but with the twist of an imagined shamanic character, Karamakate, that accompanies/guides the two explorers in the 1920s and 1940s. 

Santasik Malik, on the film, states: "Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (2016) can be read as a brilliant subversion of the colonising role that the camera plays in appropriating native cultures in favour of Western narratives. The film ... was influenced by the ethnographic accounts of ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (in 1909) and American biologist Richard Evans Schultes (in 1940), yet it deviates from uncomplicated transliteration of those accounts and weaves in various indigenous narratives to critique the colonialist discourse."

As an African saying illustrates: "Until the lion has a historian, the hunter will always be the hero."  This reminds us that history is a living, ongoing dialogue, and the more ways in which we can see the world through a plurality of narratives and interpretations, the better we will understand the complexities of human interactions. In the film, the shaman Karamakate states that the only way the sick American explorer could heal is to dream, perhaps that is a message to all of us. 

When watching this film, think about how we all construct a sense of our shared reality on this planet and our place in the universe. This is not disparaging in the sense that I am saying that our perceived realities are just fantasy, instead it is an encouragement to open ourselves up to how different cultures, different languages, different places, different identities, different eras, different truths, act as vast unexplored regions in which we can learn about new ways of seeing & being.

The film can challenge our rigid understanding of time as a linear process and Euro-americans fraught relationship with the natural world which they seek to solely control/exploit. Use these two challenges to anchor you during your journey through Embrace of the Serpent.

Lastly, Catherine Grant, writing in Mediático: 

Every so often a special film comes along and slaps us in the face and demands our attention. A film that reminds us why we became and remain academics, critics and teachers. We take on these roles because we love films that teach us about the world we live in, and because we want to share our enthusiasm and that knowledge. Learning and sharing knowledge is one of the central themes of Embrace of the Serpent. ... Embrace of the Serpent is a film that is simple and beautiful, yet also epic, ecological, mystical, cosmic and extra-terrestrial. It presents us with a vision of how broken people can be made whole again. It is visually gorgeous, unusually shot on film in black-and-white by cinematographer David Gallegos. In addition to its visual splendour, it provides an example of the kind of ethical filmmaking which could teach some directors a thing or two.

I look forward to discussing your responses to this film and it will also connect with Iciar Bollain's 2010 film Even the Rain that I am screening tomorrow at 1PM.


I have a sizable archive of resources on Embrace of the Serpent - come up to me afterward if you would like to have it sent to you.

Embrace of the Serpent won many awards, including the Sundance Film Festivals inaugural Sloan Award for Science in Cinema, 7 of the 8 major categories in the Platino Ibero-American Film Awards, and was nominated as Colombia's entry for the best foreign film category at the Oscars (the first time a Colombian film made the final five list).

Yakruna is an invented plant-based drug, it was done out of respect for native cultures in the Amazon basin that use these plants in their rituals.  In Wade Davis' book One River  he relates how Richard Schultes was seeking information about Ayahuasca.

Ciro Guerra says he chose to film in Black and White because he wanted to represent how the indigenous Karamakate (and the indigenous perspective he represents) views everything as interconnected and in order to do that he wanted a similarity of representation.  Santasik Malick, again, explains: 

The reason why director Guerra chose to shoot the film in black and white illustrates the futility of the camera as a Western eye. He learned that the Amazonians have fifty different names for the colour green. Realising the inability of the camera to articulate the varied details, textures, and nuances of greenness, he decided to abandon the idea of shooting it in colour. This strategy invites the audience to fill the frame with their imaginations regarding the greenness of the Amazon, for the director claimed, “what we imagine would certainly be more real than what I could portray.”


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