Caption from Embrace of the Serpent, by Ciro Guerra

The Amazon and the Embrace of the serpent

A Colombian film, with a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Embrace of the Serpent was nominated for Best Foreign Film at this years’ Oscar Awards.

It has won many international awards (Art Cinema Award in Cannes, Odessa festival, Munich etc). Obviously, I had very high expectations when I went to see this movie at the Filmhuis in The Hague.

Filmed in black and white and written by Ciro Guerrera, also the Director, and Jacques Toulemonde (I like so much this French surname which means everybody) the story was inspired by the diaries of two scientists from different periods in time, Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes. The two men traveled to the Amazon in different periods during the first half of the twentieth century. Schultes became a famous biologist specialised in psychotropic drugs and his studies lead him to the Amazon in search of the queen of the psychotropic plants, the Banisteriopsis caapi, which serves as the main ingredient to make the hallucinogenic brew, Ayahuasca.

The story in the film has some real facts but it is mainly fiction. Its main purpose is to indulge us with the beauty of the Amazon and the importance of its conservation. It denounces the multiple attacks the Amazon has received during the history of human kind and since the discovery of the New Continent.

The film attacks, without any sign of clemency, the violence with which the Spanish priests tried to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism. How they smashed their beliefs forcing them to think their culture and idiosyncrasy were demoniac.  More recently the Colombian invaders were caricatured as evil creatures, killing indigenous people just to steal their land and resources.

The film wants to show us the importance of ancient indigenous medicine and social practices, as well as a way to open the mind with the help of psychotropic plants.

It could have been a fantastic film, but it is not. There are a couple of scenes where the story and some characters have been so stretched and exaggerated that make me think the director had the Oscar and the American mass public in mind all the time. If he could have been more true to himself and the rest of the cinema spectators, the result would have been very different. If he wanted to give a lesson and recriminate society for its evil actions he could have done it in a more subtle and clever way, which is always more effective. The film would have been more artistic as well. A real shame. So close, but unfortunately, it didn’t finally reach the excellence which could have deserved. I must say as a side and positive note, that there is an intense and difficult work made in the film, especially with the fact that all actors speak mainly in the indigenous original language of the area. A great achievement.

When I went to the Amazon last February I had in mind, as one of the things I wanted to experience there; to try Ayahuasca. I read a lot about the subject and I spoke with a couple of people who tried it. Most of the experiences were very positive, with the exception of a couple of quite traumatic cases.

Everyone explained how sick they felt, how confused, but also the clear memories that suddenly came to their minds, pieces of childhood that were hidden somewhere in the subconscious until the drug released them. Some of them were very happy, others sad or terrifying. But all coincided saying that at the end of the process, when the effects of the drug withdrew, they felt very much in peace and with the feeling they had gone through an important trip within themselves and their past experiences. Many of them claimed to understand themselves better and to have a more positive approach in general to some traumatic events that had taken place in their lives.

In the Amazon I had contact with some indigenous people. I didn’t travel very deep into the jungle so the people I met were already quite civilised. I use this term here to describe the process through which the indigenous person has periodic contact with civilised people and has already processed and copied some of our social practises. Most of them try to live from natural resources (cultivation, farming) or more recently from curious tourists.

I asked whether I could join an Ayahuasca ceremony and I got the name of a Chaman and a place. The ceremony always takes place in a Maloca, a big hut where people of the village meet for important events. The Chaman was a respected member of the community and he organised Ayahuasca ceremonies also for foreigners.

I spent that day walking in the jungle followed by the sweetest wild dog, swimming with my little fishy friends, children from small villages who were not scared of the numerous piranhas that were underneath us. Gaelo my guide told me, while you move they don’t bite, they only do if they smell blood or if you stay still, because then they think you are dead and can eat you. At sunset we watched the grey and pink dolphins in the river, jumping some meters away from our canoe.

Pink dolphins in the Amazon. Photo © Windowlicker, GNU FDL Version 1.2
Pink dolphins in the Amazon. Photo © Windowlicker, GNU FDL Version 1.2
Children from one of the village, washing clothes and swimming with me. Photo: Miki Peraleda
Children from one of the villages, washing clothes and swimming with me. Photo: Miki Peraleda
Oso, the dog who followed us during three days in the jungle. Photo: Elena de Francisco
Oso, the dog who followed us during three days in the jungle. Photo: Elena de Francisco

I sat with Gaelo, at a Maloca and chewed coca dust. I had some tobacco blown into my nostrils through what seemed like a hollow horn. Also a way to get a bit high, according with him. He really enjoyed chewing coca dust a lot. He was one of the funniest people I have ever met.

The sun was down, so it was the time. I was scared. I didn’t dare to go to the Maloca and try the Ayahuasca. I thought that maybe some moments of my life were better to be left asleep in the depths of my subconscious. I was having such an amazing time that I felt I didn’t need to go beyond. I don’t know if I will ever try it, I still feel a strong curiosity for this drug, but I think that was not my moment. It may come or not. Who knows?

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