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'Serpent' Film Explores, Revives Lost Cultural Knowledge For Colombians


Can time go backwards? Can two people from different generations be the same person? These questions are at the heart of a new film from Colombia called "Embrace Of The Serpent." It's not exactly science-fiction, but it is a fictional glimpse into how indigenous peoples in the Amazon see the world. It's also up for an Oscar for best language foreign film. And it has just opened in this country. NPR's Tom Cole has the story behind the film.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: To understand the Amazon, director Ciro Guerra says you have to lose your mind.

CIRO GUERRA: Losing all the preconceptions that I had about storytelling, about the world, you know, and learning to see the world from a different perspective. It sounds romantic, but it's not an easy process at all.

COLE: It's certainly tough on one of Guerra's characters, a German explorer struggling for his life against an unnamed disease. The only thing that can save him is a rare plant. And the only man who can find it is a shaman named Karamakate.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, foreign language spoken).

GUERRA: The story of the Amazon is a story that has been told by Europeans, you know, by Germans, by Canadians, by Americans.

COLE: Not so much, he says, by Colombians. In fact, Guerra based his story on the diaries of two explorers, German Theodor Koch-Grunberg and American Richard Evans Schultes. There work is some of the only documentation of cultures that have since vanished. But Guerra did not want white men to be his protagonists. So "Embrace Of The Serpent" is told from the points of view and in the languages of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. He went there before shooting began, with a script written mostly in Spanish.

GUERRA: We translated the script together with them. And during the process of translation, they rewrote the scripts. They put a lot into it. They made it their own. There are names of plants or chants or certain rites and everything that you cannot come across it in a movie. You know, you cannot learn about them casually. So the film doesn't have value in the ethnographical, anthropological. It's fiction.

COLE: The two explorers are given fictional names. But as in real life, they travel to the Amazon roughly a generation apart, in the early-to-mid 20th century. In the film, they're both guided by Karamakate, as a young man early in the story and later as an old shaman. He and the outsiders share a desire for knowledge - self knowledge and an understanding of the world around them, says the film's co-screenwriter, Jacques Toulemonde.

JACQUES TOULEMONDE: We wanted to make a meeting between wise people. There's this indigenous, wise man. And these explorers, they are also people with knowledge. And they are the first who come to the jungle and to the Amazon treating the indigenous like people and seeing them like people and interested in what they thought and what they believed in.

COLE: And what they believe in real life is complicated. Theodor Koch-Grunberg wrote in his diary that indigenous peoples in the Amazon see these outsiders following in each other's footsteps as the same person, a single soul traversing across several lives. They also see time as something that doesn't proceed inexorably into the future. In one scene, the elderly Karamakate gazes across the river into the past, where the German explorer from decades before staggers to the opposite bank.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Karamakate, foreign language spoken).

COLE: Karamakate says, "to become a warrior, every Cohiuano man must leave everything behind and go into the jungle, guided only by his dreams. In that journey, he has to discover, in solitude and silence, who he really is."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Karamakate, foreign language spoken).

COLE: Both the old and young Karamakates are portrayed by indigenous men, neither of them professional actors. The old shaman is played by Antonio Bolivar Salvador.

GUERRA: His indigenous name is Safillamar.

COLE: Director Ciro Guerra.

GUERRA: He has an incredible story because he's one of the last Ocaina people left. The Ocaina people are - and the Ocaina language is basically about to disappear in this generation. You know, there are very few people that speak it. And he's one of them.

COLE: The Ocaina and many of the other indigenous peoples of the Amazon were nearly wiped out during the rubber boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Outsiders came into the jungle, enslaved the tribes to harvest the rubber and killed those that resisted. As young Karamakate tells a group of children...


NILBIO TORRES: (As young Karamakate, foreign language spoken).

COLE: "One day, they will finish all the food in the jungle. You are still small, so the jungle will forgive you. Every plant, every tree, every flower is full of wisdom. Never forget who you are or where you came from. Don't let our song fade away."


TORRES: (As young Karamakate, foreign language spoken).

COLE: The loss of the culture is one of the main reasons Ciro Guerra wanted to tell their story.

GUERRA: The problem now is that young people, young indigenous people, are not so interested in preserving traditional knowledge. So for them, seeing that it was important for us and for the outside world, this traditional knowledge, it was a big deal to them.

COLE: And "Embrace Of The Serpent" has been a big deal for Colombians outside the Amazon. It's been showing continuously there for more than three months. And the Oscar nomination, the film's producer says Colombians are comparing it to having the national team in the World Cup. Tom Cole, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Cole is a senior editor on NPR's Arts Desk. He develops, edits, produces, and reports on stories about art, culture, music, film, and theater for NPR's news magazines Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and All Things Considered. Cole has held these responsibilities since February 1990.