Spanning two different moments in time, and intertwining the stories of two scientists and an Amazonian shaman, Embrace of the Serpent (2015) from Colombian Director Ciro Guerra is an impressive cinematic experience and a true spiritual journey into the heart of a region with a special place in the collective imaginary of the world. The film was awarded the Art Cinema Award in the Directors' Fortnight section at the 2015 Cannes Festival, and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards.

The story follows Karamakate, 'the world giver', the last survivor of his tribe, who, in 1909, assist ethnobotanist Theodor von Martius in his search for the sacred healing plant yakruna, a journey on the Vaupés River in the Colombian Amazon. Scientist Richard Evans Schultes finds Karamakate, on the same river, in 1940, and asks for help from the now much older shaman, who fears he has become a “chullachaqui”, a person with no memories.

Inspired by the diaries kept by both scientists during their fieldwork in the Amazon; fiction and reality are compellingly weaved into the film, in a fascinating effort to tell one of the most important stories of our times.

Extracts from Theodor Koch Grunberg's diary, featuring portraits of Yekuana Huruana's family.

Extracts from Theodor Koch Grunberg's diary, featuring portraits of Yekuana Huruana's family.

Dr. Richard Evans Schultes in the Amazon, 1940.

Dr. Richard Evans Schultes in the Amazon, 1940.

As Art Director Ramses Benjumea recalls, shooting Embrace of the Serpent was not an easy task. Filmed on location in Colombia’s Amazonia region, specifically in the departments of Vaupés and Guainía, the crew worked with the jungle itself – simultaneously a medium and a character. The making of this film represented a titanic effort: six motorboats, six rafts, six vessels were needed all at once, on the immense and unpredictable river Vaupés.

Behind-the-Scenes with Nilbio Torres on the set of Embrace of the Serpent, 2015.

Behind-the-Scenes with Nilbio Torres on the set of Embrace of the Serpent, 2015.

The decision to embark on this adventure corresponds to Guerra’s desire to develop a deeper understanding of this region of Colombia. Producer Cristina Gallegos believes that the ravages of colonialism silenced ancestral tribes and their cultures, leading to lack of documentation. The filmmakers felt that they were engaged in a process of preserving knowledge and keeping a record of what happened.

Dr Richard Evans Schultes collecting plants with Maku helpers, 1952.

Dr Richard Evans Schultes collecting plants with Maku helpers, 1952.

An important aspect to highlight is the work of the acting coach, Andrés Barrientos, who prepared the entire cast with communication exercises to develop the ability to listen to each other. Barrientos applied techniques that appeal to the senses and helped all the actors and actresses create a beautiful bond that can be seen on screen.

Aside from being an evident source of inspiration, local communities were also engaged in creating the costumes worn by the cast. As Costume Assistant Geraldin Vargas affirms, it would have been impossible to make so many costumes in such a short time, without help from members of different Indigenous communities.

On set of Embrace of The Serpent, 2015. Photo by Andrés Barrientos.

On set of Embrace of The Serpent, 2015. Photo by Andrés Barrientos.

Embrace of the Serpent is a tragic tale, but it also tells the story of the necessary preservation of knowledge that can change the world. At the narrative level, this film is the beginning of a long journey of remembrance and celebration of the vanishing cultures of the Amazon. Beyond the story itself, the production effort speaks to a particular attitude towards filmmaking and creative engagement with the urgency of preserving cultural heritage. More than a relationship with the narrative, the filmmakers developed a relationship with the environment, the people and their past and present, they wrestled with a mighty river, and were eventually accepted and embraced by it.

Words: Astrid Scheuerman

Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu