The Director of ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ On Why His Amazon-Set Film Flips History on Its Head

The year 2016 will definitely go down in history for Colombian cinema. After years positioned as a scrappy regional up-and-comer, living in the shadow of Latin American heavyweights like Mexico and Argentina, the floodgates have finally broken and Colombian cinema has come crashing onto the world stage. With his third feature, El abrazo de la serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent), Cesarense director Ciro Guerra earned his country an historic Oscar nomination and the world’s eyes are now trained squarely on el país de los cafeteros.

But the Academy’s recognition didn’t come out of nowhere. At the time of the final announcement, El abrazo had already picked up important accolades at Cannes, while Guerra’s previous film Los viajes del viento (The Wind Journeys) also earned positive recognition at Cannes back in 2009. Not to mention other recent Colombian titles like 2015’s La tierra y la sombra (Land and Shade) or 2010’s Los colores de la montaña (The Colors of the Mountain) that have turned heads at festivals the world over.

El abrazo‘s true story story of a duo of foreign scientists working over fifty years in the Colombian Amazon is noteworthy perhaps most of all because it is told from the perspective of the region’s indigenous people rather than the white adventurers. Superficial comparisons to films like Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God quickly fall apart when one considers how revolutionary such a small gesture can be, and evidently audiences have responded positively to Guerra’s proverbial flipping of the script. In addition, Guerra’s eye for stunning landscapes and masterful work with local non-actors makes for a truly unique film that has rightfully earned its place in Latin American film history.

On the cusp of the Oscar’s February 28th ceremony, we sat down with the 35-year-old director at the Sundance Film Festival to talk about shooting in black-and-white, parables of cultural contact, and of course, getting the big news of his nomination. This is the second installment in our Short Cuts series, which we inaugurated last year with actress Veronica Sixtos of Pocha. Check out the short video above and read below for some juicy outtakes.

Photo: Mario Acevedo
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Interview conducted by Remezcla Film Editor, Vanessa Erazo.

On Getting the News That His Film Got an Oscar Nomination

When the announcement came it was just a big rush of emotion. It was nice to be with all the crew that made this film together, to just celebrate this moment. But it was crazy, it was a lot of euphoria and jumping around. And generally in Colombia the news was received with a lot of joy.

On Life After an Oscar Nomination

It’s like getting hit by a bus, but in a good way. You’re at a moment in your life, and everything changes, and you’re swept up in a media frenzy. But also many doors opened for the film, for the distribution of the film. A lot of people become immediately interested… We managed to get it back into cinemas in Colombia, and there were a lot of people in Colombia who wanted to see it but didn’t get a chance because the film didn’t play in all the cinemas.

On the Taking Apart the Concept of Private Property

This concept [of private property], which is so rooted in our culture, is really just a concept. And it can be just as much fantasy or fiction as any other concept. And I wanted the film to portray this, and I realized when I was with the indigenous people that they take what they need from whatever culture. They don’t have this idea of a culture being pure, they don’t have this idea of races being different. A man is just a man, no matter what his skin color is. And the knowledge of this man is just as valid as any other knowledge. They are way more open to foreign language than we are. If they see something they can use, they use it.

On Portraying What Happens When European and Indigenous Cultures Meet

That’s the essence of the conflict of the film: is it impossible for these cultures to come together, or is it possible for these cultures to dialogue? What happens when these cultures speak to each other on equal terms, and what happens when one culture tries to impose itself on the other?

On Why Using Non-Actors for the Indigenous Roles Was the Right Choice

These people may not have training in theater or experience in something like cinema or television or whatever, but they have the ability to listen, and they have the ability to listen for real. And it’s very difficult to find an actor that can listen for real. So they’re halfway there, so once we explained it to them they were very clear on what the scene was about.

On the Lessons Audiences Can Teach Filmmakers

You learn a lot from audiences. You learn when they receive a film, what speaks to them and what doesn’t. That’s what I like about cinema, you’re learning all throughout the process, even when the film is already finished.

El abrazo de la serpiente opens in theaters in New York on February 17 and in Los Angeles on February 19. For dates in other cities visit the film’s website.