Interview: Ciro Guerra talks ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ and the rise of Colombian cinema

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Ciro Guerra
From the Amazon jungle, to the Cannes red carpet and beyond, it has been a long but successful journey for Ciro Guerra and his Oscar-nominated film Embrace of the Serpent. Now released in North American theaters and with the big Oscar night ahead, this magnificent film will surely captivate new audiences, as it did when I first saw it back at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was therefore a pleasure to get the chance to sit with Guerra last week in LA, where we discussed the making of the film, the Oscars and the recent surge of Colombian cinema.

Shane Slater: I just re-watched the film and was once again fascinated by the mix of mythic elements with the more grounded themes of colonialism and history. When and how did all these different ideas come to you?

Ciro Guerra: At first, I was fascinated by this study of the explorers. Men of knowledge from different worlds coming together. That’s what fascinated me at first. And I started with a script that was very clear with a very Western structure, all the dates and places were very clear. Then, I made a lot of effort to research and make it historically and scientifically accurate. But then as I started working with the Amazonian people, I threw all of that out of the window. I realized that dream and imagination are just as important to them as reality. And the script, as I developed it and worked with them, it became more infused with Amazonian myth and Amazonian storytelling. And it became a more particular film, and a truer one. Because we gave the film that perspective.

We started working on ground that wasn’t so solid first, we weren’t feeling so safe. I cannot say that film is the Amazon, or that it’s an accurate look at the Amazon. I don’t have the right to say that. But the film attemps to build a bridge, between that way of understanding the world, that way of storytelling and ours, so we can understand it. Because if I show you in a documentary way, it’s very difficult to understand and relate to it. It’s a completely opposite conception of the world. So the film is an attempt to bridge those ways of understanding.

SS: You shot the film in black and white, which isn’t the most obvious choice for this lush forest setting. What was the reasoning behind this choice?

CG: For me, it all started with the images of the explorers. I was blown away when I saw these images. What you see in these images is this black and white photography, it’s an Amazon completely devoid of all this exuberance and exoticism. It just feels like a different world, a different time. And when I was there, I realized that the reason it fascinated me so much is because it’s not really possible to accurately portray the colors of the Amazon on any kind of film or photo. Because these colors have so much meaning and nuance. So I thought, maybe the audience could imagine those colors and the Amazon they imagine would be more real than the one I could portray. When you see the world in this manner, there isn’t this thing about nature being green and us being different. Every man, every animal, every plant, every rock appears to be made of the same material. It’s closer to the way the indigenous people understand the world.

But there are so many reasons why the film was in black and white, it’s impossible to sum it up. I just felt that the film had to be in black and white. If it had been in color, it would be a completely different film.

SS: Filmmakers are usually hesitant to immerse themselves in nature like you did with this film, and currently there has been so much press surrounding The Revenant and how difficult that shoot was. What was the experience like for you?

CG: We knew that making a film in the jungle was going to be demanding. We heard the stories about other jungle films that had been hell to shoot and we were really prepared. But what we did was we decided that we weren’t going to try to bring the logic of a foreign production into the Amazon. We were going to adapt ourselves to the logic of the place. And we had the guidance and participation of the indigenous communities. Not only did they become an integral part of the crew and cast, but they guided us to work with the jungle, not against it. And when we were working we were very respectful of the place, we asked for its permission. We felt that the place was helping us to make the film. That’s the reason why the film was very good. Because if you go against a place like the Amazon, it can destroy you immediately. And this production wasn’t of the size that could sustain a battle with the landscape. We just had one small shot of doing it and it really helped us. It gave us some precious moments that are in the film.

SS: You have such an eclectic mix of unknowns and more experienced actors, as well as from different countries. How did you go about casting the film?

CG: We made the decision that all the indigenous people would be played by real indigenous people, and non-actors. And all the white characters would be played by professional actors. So they were literally coming from different worlds of acting, as the characters were coming from different worlds. So it created a tension and it made everything different.

On the one hand, we had to find indigenous people who had the ability to perform these very complex characters. But that wasn’t so hard. Once we found them, they were the only ones who could play these characters. It’s not like we did casting with thousands of people. We just went around and looked and they were there and they were the only ones. I thought it was going to be more difficult to bring them to filmmaking, to explain to them. But these are people who may not have experience with theatre or acting, but they have this oral tradition that they have kept alive for centuries. And it just gives them the ability to listen, and they know how to listen for real. It’s very hard to find people who know how to listen! [Laughs]. So they were halfway there already. Storytelling is very important to them, so we just jumped into it with such enthusiasm and a childlike joy.

The hardest part was for the other actors, the foreign actors. It wasn’t just inviting them to Colombia to film in the Amazon, but to come and do it in the indigenous language. It takes a very special kind of actor to accept this challenge. And Jan and Brionne took it with enthusiasm. We sent them how to say every word and phrase of the script phonetically, and they did their homework and learned, and when they arrived in the jungle they would speak and the indigenous people would understand perfectly. So they were able to act in a language and think in another language. I think that is amazing and a testament to their commitment.

SS: Colombian cinema has been on a roll lately, with a strong showing at Cannes last year and even just recently at Sundance with Between Sea and Land winning major prizes. How would you explain this recent surge in Colombian cinema?

CG: It’s something that has been in the works for quite a few years now. Basically, 12 years ago a film law was passed that opened support to filmmakers and funding. Before, it was difficult and very rare to make a film in Colombia. After that, support came and there was just a generation of people who were willing and very eager to tell the country’s stories and to look to our own identity. And for the first time, they had the tools to develop and grow. So it’s been a long process. There have been brilliant films made in the past few years, but last year was like the coming of age for Colombian cinema. It hasn’t been overnight and there has been a solid generation of filmmakers with many interesting stories and interesting takes on the world. So I’m just glad to be a part of that generation.

SS: Of course the perfect reflection of this is your film being nominated for the Oscar, a first for Colombia. What has this journey and nomination process been like for you?

CG: Both my previous films were selected by Colombia, but back then there were so few films made that there wasn’t that much of a choice. But this past year was so good for Colombian cinema, we actually had to campaign a little bit because there were so many deserving films. It was a big honor when we were selected. Thankfully, the film’s distributor has supported the campaign for the Oscar and the film has just had such an extraordinary reception by the American audience and the Academy. We try to do our best to make the film visible and once it’s there, the film has to do its own work. We have been very pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastic the response has been here.

It’s been a very strong year for Latin American cinema. So I thought there were at least 4 to 5 films that had a real shot at the shortlist. And when the shortlist came out and we were the only one, it was shocking! It was such a great year for foreign cinema, there were so many great movies. There are so many filmmakers that definitely deserved it. So for us, it was just a big surprise and a big honor. We’re just glad because it opens a lot of doors for the film to be seen by a wider audience.

SS: So what’s next for you, are you planning to do something this ambitious for your next film?

CG: I’ve been working on another film for a year and a half. We’re planning to shoot in Colombia next year for a 2018 release and it’s a completely different film. But it’s coming from the same place, so I guess there will be some similarities. Also, I’m now being invited to do films here, so it’s a possibility I’m exploring.

Click here for my review of Embrace of the Serpent.

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