When director Ciro Guerra and producer Cristina Gallego gave me the script for Embrace of the Serpent, I took my time reading it, knowing in advance that it was a story that could not be read lightly.
I tried not to interpret the story visually—I wanted to read for character, context and motivation—but every page inadvertently evoked photographs from the past. The story of an Amazonian shaman, Karamakate, and his encounters—40 years apart—with two Western scientists searching the jungle for a sacred plant, this was a complex film, a universe unknown to me, a magical time and place.
Ciro told me he was thinking of shooting black and white, like the images of a hidden document that was going to reveal a secret. Ciro wanted the film to create a reality that no longer exists—characters and a culture dead at the hands of Western man. I understood that we were looking for a visual document, an archived document that had to be rescued, cleaned and brought back to the present. We realized that film was the ideal medium.
As visual references, we used only expeditionary photographs from explorers Theodor Koch-Grunberg (1872-1924) and Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001) who had entered the Amazon jungle and, with every picture, had frozen little stories of their encounters with the natives. Photographic techniques from the 1900s had a character marked by a lack of definition in the image—high contrast, very slow emulsions and a very visible grain. These features guided us toward the aesthetic identity of the film.
Ciro wanted to be very faithful to the reality of indigenous cultures. Our production designer, Angelica Perea, was incredibly sensitive to the look Ciro wanted, and managed to realize two time periods through costume and set design. This helped me establish patterns in the camera work. At the opening of the film, Young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) perceives that a white man is approaching him. The camera movement is steady, and with this movement a sense of mystery is created. In the future scenes with old Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvado), we used zoom movements to produce a very similar sequence. Mirrors.
Fire was our only justifiable light source in the jungle, so we tried to imagine how this energy could be transformed and interpreted in many different states. Fire as an element only occurs when the rite of caapi (a vine brewed into “yagé,” or ayahuasca) is undergone, sparking a transformation. It is an overflowing energy that is not intended to be controlled. In an early scene that takes place at a mission, fire is contained in lamps, candles and torches. In the later, 1940-set mission scene, however, fire burns freely in pits and torches—an emancipated, fully grown, overwhelming fire. Anizetto (Nicolás Cancino), the community leader, represents the merger, overflow and decay of both worlds.
On location in the rainforest, Ciro observed the way the sun over the Vaupes River resized the space and feel of the jungle, making it appear less dense. The cloudy sky, on the other hand, showed the jungle as impenetrable. This darkness was the feeling we wanted, ultimately, for these characters and the film. MM
Camera: Arricam Lite
Lenses: Zeiss Super Speed MK III
Film Stock: Fujifilm Eterna Vivid 160T and 500T
Processing: 2K Techniscope scan
Aspect Ratio: 2:35.1
Color Grading: Cinecolor Argentina
Embrace of the Serpent opens in theaters February 17, 2016, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2016 issue. Featured photograph by Liliana Merizalde.