To Make the Oscar-Nominated Amazonian Epic Embrace of the Serpent, Its Filmmaker Had to Embrace the Jungle

By
Photo: Buffalo Films

Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent, which is nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is not just a movie about the jungle — in this case, the Amazon. It’s a movie of the jungle. The first-ever nod of its kind for a Colombian feature, Serpent has drawn comparisons to both Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. The resemblance to those famous jungle epics comes with good reason: Be it Kurtz-like messiahs leading twisted acolytes, one-armed rubber slaves begging for death, or a psychedelic ceremony that makes an ayahuasca trip seem like a cheap amusement park high, Guerra's jungle transforms everyone and everything it touches. The further upstream you venture, the weirder things get.

The film eschews familiar perspective at every turn. It's a slow-paced, turn-of-the-century parable, shot in stark black-and-white 35mm. The cast was populated by actors plucked from nearby farms and river tribes, many of whom had never before encountered a camera. Its press kit reads like an eco-Marxist manifesto. Even among its Academy competition — movies that hail from France, Denmark, Hungary, and Jordan — Serpent seems like an outlier.

That's no surprise, given the movie's origins. Guerra spent eight weeks filming in a remote section of the Colombian rain forest, where any simple task, like replacing the batteries to an audio recorder, could easily morph into a daunting, week-long expedition — and that's assuming the weather cooperated and the plane was working. In other words, problems were to be expected. What the 35-year-old Colombian director wasn't anticipating, however, was the total absence of any damaging setbacks. Guerra and his crew made it out of the jungle unscathed. Nobody even suffered a snakebite.

In a recent interview, Guerra gave Vulture a few pointers on how to survive such a grueling setting, with a crew of 40 people in tow, all while navigating the customs and prohibitions set by local tribal leaders — and, oh right, making an awards-caliber movie.

Explain Yourself to the Locals
Guerra set out to make allies of the Amazonian communities before shooting an inch of film. "We wanted to avoid bringing the logic of a foreign production into the jungle," he says. He and the film's primary researcher trekked deep into Vaupes, an obscure region of Colombia, to meet a prominent healer whose support was needed for the project's success. The pair explained their intentions to him, and he promptly relayed their pitch to the jungle itself. "He explained our intentions to the forest," Guerra said. "If the jungle said, 'No,' and if the jungle hadn't assisted us, then this movie would not have been made."

Once the surrounding communities committed to the project, Guerra said, they went all-in. Getting to a place of mutual trust between the seven distinct tribes of the region required a series of ceremonial rituals, the details of which Guerra would not relay to me over the phone. ("It would not be proper.") But they were "sacred" ceremonies, he says, which, for a majority of the tribes in the Southern regions of Colombia, means drinking DMT-filled ayahuasca, a brew extracted from the caapi vine. "Master Caapi" is mentioned frequently throughout the film.

Hire a Shaman
Even productions outside of hostile landscapes could use help warding off pestilence and disharmony. When the tribespeople offered up their payé, or shaman, to protect the shoot, Guerra immediately agreed. "They offered us their spiritual protection," he says. "It would've been suicidal to go on without [it]."

Guerra credits Serpent's miraculously accident-free production — along with the absence of jaguar maulings, ruined shots, or theatrical on-set egos — to the shaman on staff. Until the shaman began performing daily protection rituals, Guerra says, 50-hour-long downpours were the norm. Once filming commenced, however, the skies would only open during lunch breaks and whenever the light was no longer suitable for filming. This pattern held for the entirety of the shoot.

Learn to Live With Uncertainty
The sense of fear that comes from working in the jungle wears on you "every day, every hour, every single minute," Guerra says. Just one week into production, he suffered a breakdown. The enormity of their task, he explains, crashed right down on him: "Every shot, every scene was so demanding, so exhausting. We were at the mercy of things that were greater than our tiny ensemble."

But eventually, the mental fog broke. "You have to let go," he says. "You realize what you're doing is ridiculous." In a cross-pollination of tribal mysticism and Zen mindfulness, Guerra watched as his crew became "gung-ho." Even the jungle began to help,"collaborating" with them during the shoot. Numerous scenes in the movie — such as the ones in which dozens of white butterflies swarm the characters — were actually moments of serendipity between nature and actor. Or, as Guerra would say, moments when the jungle "offered its presence." The jungle, however, is not listed in the credits.

Shoots Are Very, Very Slow
Guerra frequently invokes the idea of bending himself to the jungle, but the concept only begins to make sense when he describes the pace of the shoot, about as rapid as a lazy river. Because the majority of the film centers on two actors traversing the river via canoe, Guerra's crew generally operated as a five-boat flotilla (including the makeup boat), which forced them to synchronize every single shot. It was "a most painful dance," he says. For every 30 seconds of usable film, the crew labored for roughly one hour. But as Guerra points out, not even that was in their control: "Do you know how far out one can hear a motorboat on the Amazon river?" he says. "From two miles out." Any man-made sounds on the water required the cast and crew to halt until any audible reminder of the modern world had disappeared down river.

The Locals Will Laugh at You
Filmmakers don't typically break out into fits of hysterical laughter over the sheer act of their work. This is not the case for tribal people working alongside the production. "They're just laughing at you all the time," Guerra says "They find the whole process extremely funny and extremely amazing." To date, Guerra hasn't figured out what they found to be so funny, even though their laughter was a constant on the set. "It can be strange to be laughed at all of the time," he says. "You realize after some time that you've started laughing at yourself, too."

Don't Tempt the Jungle Twice
Guerra seemingly cracked the code of the jungle — a feat that drew a tart dismissal from Werner Herzog, whose work in the jungle is more notable for its flotsam-like efficiency. But unlike Herzog's repeated incursions, Guerra has no plans to return for seconds. "The entire production was so beautiful, but it could've gone wrong in so many ways," he says. "It's a risk you cannot take twice."