Cannes: Colombian Helmer Explores Lost Worlds in 'Serpent'
Ciro Guerra delves into the Amazonian jungle for a dreamlike tale about clashing cultures, Shamanism and the shifting nature of time.
Ciro Guerra has written a love letter to his native Colombia with his visually stunning Directors’ Fortnight entry, Embrace of the Serpent.
Following his well-received 2009 Un Certain Regard entry, The Wind Journeys, which centered on a winding road-trip through the country’s villages and mountains, Guerra’s fourth feature dives deep into the Amazonian jungle. Virtually impossible to sum up, Serpent tells two parallel stories and focuses on four main characters: two botanists, an Amazonian native and a Shaman. Telling two connected tales of the clash between the seemingly civilized botanists and the natives, the film jumps back and forth in time, refusing to tell a linear story.
But plot is not the point: Guerra has created a fever dream that imbues a breathtakingly shot story with a sense of melancholy for a forgotten world. Yet amid all the jungle’s lush greenery, the 34-year-old helmer chose to film in black and white. He was inspired by the journals and photographs of the early 20th century explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg. “These black-and-white graphic plates show a lost world, an Amazon that doesn’t exist anymore," says Guerra. "They take out all of the exuberance and exoticism you usually see from tourism films. I wanted the film to feel like that, that it’s a place that exists but is in another world, another time.”
The unusual structure also was influenced by the exotic locations, reflecting the fact that the jungle’s inhabitants do not view time as linear. “When you see films about the Amazon, they’re usually told from the explorer’s point of view,” observes Guerra. “The way indigenous people understand time is not linear, and it gave me an opportunity to tell a story in a spiral way.”
Guerra says his desire to make a film about the Amazon was driven by the fact that the area was long off-limits to average Colombians thanks to the decades-long war on drugs. “Now that it’s over, I feel like our generation is really taking back the country,” he says. “The Amazon means so much to Colombia, but we don’t know much about it. So it started as a journey into the unknown, which is how it starts for the audience as well.”
Guerra also was interested in exploring the concept of chullachaqui, which he describes as a “hollow” condition the natives believe sets in when too much time is spent isolated in the jungle. The director saw parallels with a modern world in which people interact virtually, yet still search for spiritual connection.
“I think traditional knowledge has been neglected by modernity and is something that is seen as primitive, but really has a lot of answers for the questions people are asking themselves today. It’s very relevant," he says.