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Arts & Life

Time Intertwines And Colonization Ravages In 'Embrace Of The Serpent'

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Andres Barrientos
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Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

Director Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent tries to respect how indigenous people in the Amazon region of South America see their world. The picture certainly shakes up the ways the Amazon has been photographed. It makes outsiders see and understand that the Amazon isn’t ours for the taking.

Embrace of the Serpent takes place at two different times, with two storylines based on actual diaries of outsiders. German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg visited the area in 1909, and American Richard Evans Schultes explored in 1940. In the film, each man is searching for a medicinal — maybe hallucinatory — plant called the yakruna. Both are led by the same shaman named Karamakate.

In the earlier story, Karamakate is young, angry and demanding. He sets rules for the explorer, who is sick and needy, saying that only the yakruna can save him. In the later story, the now older, bald and settled Karamakate draws images on a rock wall beside a river. A young, eager explorer paddles up in a boat saying he wants the old man’s help because he’s devoting his life to plants. Karamakate says that’s the most reasonable thing he’s ever heard a white man say.

In both times, Karamakate and his companions see the ravages of the forest brought about by foreign colonizers extracting rubber. In both stories the non-historical facts are endless forest, rivers and dugout canoes. Time exists as duration; there’s no counting of days or weeks. Space and time seem to have lost their limits – Karamakate can see into the past, or the future – and the fundamental confrontation is between people who want to measure the world and people certain that it cannot be measured.

The shifting between the two stories makes them seem simultaneous. Scholars have written that indigenous people see time as circular rather than linear, that in many traditional societies, once a year, the span of time comes full circle and starts all over again. Even though Karamakate is older in the 1940s story, you do get a sense of repetition. Another in a string of explorers from the outside world wants the yakruna. The few indications of historical time come from the visitors. There’s a camera from the 1940s and the clothing of the two white men. The desperate priest who whips boys into accepting Catholicism looks to be of his time.

Guerra shot the film in black and white, so from the start Embrace of the Serpent avoids the look of dramatic color photos from an eco-tourist vacation. The black and white offers a different beauty, a beauty that’s stark with sharp edges. It’s stunning and unexpected, and also abstract, and the human characters tend to blend into the landscape.

Even if Embrace of the Serpent shifts how many outsiders have seen the Amazon, it is not an indigenous look at the place or the people. With the aging character of Karamakate, the movie feels nostalgic, as outsiders think about the Amazon forest now. Ciro Guerra says that indigenous people helped with the script, but there are other movies of this place actually made by indigenous people.

A Brazilian, Vincent Carelli, started an indigenous film project in the early 1980s called Video in the Villages, and for decades, Amazon villagers have been making documentaries and fiction films in their idiom. They're not advisors; they’re makers of films. A group of indigenous Inuit people based in Igloolik, in Nunavit in extreme northern Canada, have made now three features. One of them is the stunning Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner, a film that works on a sense of narrative and visual organization that thoroughly disrupts the way non-indigenous people think and see.

While Embrace of the Serpent may not speak in an indigenous voice, it still imagines different terms for encounters between so-called civilized people and the wilderness.

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