Ciro Guerra

Ciro Guerra

Embrace of the Serpent
An Interview with Ciro Guerra

by Michael Guillén

Colombia's cinematic output was near to negligible, with only a few movies being made each year, until 2003, when the government instituted Law 814 (the so-called “Law of Cinema”) aimed at reinvesting resources generated by the film industry. Colombia’s National Council of the Arts and Culture in Film (CNACC) began granting production incentives through the country’s Film Development Fund (FDF), a financing tool that distributes proceeds collected from tariffs legislated under Law 814.

Less than a year after the passage of the Law of Cinema, then twenty-three-year-old Ciro Guerra seized this funding incentive to begin his career as a filmmaker. His first two films, The Wandering Shadows (2004) and The Wind Journeys (2009), were screened at numerous international film festivals, and both were Colombia's official submissions to the Academy Awards. His third film, Embrace of the Serpent (2015), has earned him a significantly increased festival pedigree and international critical acclaim. Embrace of the Serpent’s winning streak began with its world premiere at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, where the film took home the Art Cinema Award for Best Picture. It garnered further awards for Best Film from the Costa Rica International Film Festival, the Lima Latin American Film Festival, and the Mar del Plata Film Festival, as well as Best Director, Best Cinematography, Sound and Music at the Fénix Film Awards. Once again, Guerra’s film became Colombia’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of this year's Academy Awards. The third time proved the charm, as Embrace of the Serpent advanced to the final five nominations, the first film in Colombia's history to achieve this honor.

Loosely inspired by the expedition diaries of German ethnologist Theodor Koch- Grünberg (in 1909) and American biologist Richard Evans Schultes (in 1940), Guerra ingeniously invented the character of Karamakate (“he who tries”) to connect the two exploratory narratives set thirty years apart. Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and last survivor of his tribe, travels with both scientists during their field work in the Amazon as they look for the rare yakruna, a sacred plant. In his virile youth, Karamakate first assists Theo (né Koch-Grünberg), emboldened by an adventurous zeal to find other members of his vanishing tribe upriver. Theo's desperation to survive a threatening tropical disease finds him in a frantic race against time to find the yakruna, whose mythically alleged healing properties he hopes might save him.

Antonio Bolívar as Old Karamakate and Jon Bijvoet as Theo

Antonio Bolívar as Old Karamakate and Jon Bijvoet as Theo

The second explorer Evan (né Schultes), following Theo's minimal field notes, seeks the plant for less personal reasons, hoping instead to find a cure for the soul sickness of modern mankind, which he believes has forgotten how to dream in the ancient ways. Evan seeks out Karamakate, now much older and the only remaining member of his tribe, living in voluntary isolation in a remote hut deep in the jungle. His abject solitude has turned him into a chullachaqui, an empty shell of a man, disconnected from others, with only fading memories to ward off oblivion. Evan convinces Karamakate to accompany him on his journey and Karamakate agrees, hoping on this second journey not to find the remaining members of his tribe, but to find what is left of himself.

What follows is, in essence, a road movie in a beleaguered environment where the “road,” so to speak, is the Amazon River. What differentiates this film, however, from yet another adventurous journey is the opportunity Guerra takes to provide the vanishing tribes of the Amazon—which Karamakate represents—the voice that history, let alone cinematic representation, has officially denied them. That voice—accentuated by cinematographer David Gallegos' striking black-and-white imagery—bears tragic witness to colonial atrocities that have ravaged natural resources, devastated indigenous populations, and broken a link between ancient wisdom and Western man's exploitive madness. Accordingly, the Governor of the Guainía Department, one of the locations used for the film, decorated Ciro Guerra with the Order of the Inrida Flower for “exalting the respect and value of the indigenous populations, likewise giving the Department recognition for tourism and culture.”

 What Ciro Guerra has thus accomplished with Embrace of the Serpent is not only a creative re-contextualization that redresses the shameful practices of a national history, but also a mode of storytelling that communicates in compelling, humanistic terms. As a result, Embrace of the Serpent has reached an international audience moved by the film’s respectful and relevant portrait of a world heedlessly forsaken. 

Ciro Guerra granted Cineaste an interview at the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival, where he was awarded their Director to Watch Award.  Special thanks to Scott Feinberg for assistance in coordinating our discussion.—Michael Guillén

Cineaste: Does your film’s title refer to “the serpent” as a metaphor for time or of the Amazon? And why an “embrace”?

Ciro Guerra: In Amazonian mythology, extraterrestrial beings descended from the Milky Way, journeying to the earth on a gigantic anaconda snake. They landed in the ocean and traveled into the Amazon, stopping at communities where people existed, leaving these pilots behind who would explain to each community the rules of how to live on earth: how to harvest, fish, and hunt. Then they regrouped and went back to the Milky Way, leaving behind the anaconda, which became the river. The wrinkled skin of the serpent became the waterfalls.

They also left behind a few presents, including coca, the sacred plant; tobacco, which is also another kind of sacred plant; and yagé, the equivalent of ayahuasca, which is what you use to communicate with them in case you have a question or a doubt about how to exist in the world. When you use yagé, the serpent descends again from the Milky Way and embraces you. That embrace takes you to faraway places; to the beginning where life doesn’t even exist; to a place where you can see the world in a different way. I hope that’s what the film means to the audience.

The film invites audiences to “see the world in a different way."

The film invites audiences to “see the world in a different way."

Cineaste: Although it is based on the ethnographic accounts of Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans-Schultes, Embrace of the Serpent is not a straightforward transliteration of those accounts. Your narrative incorporates fictional elements. In order to tell the truth, cinema often “lies,” either by taking out or inserting information. How did you alter the historical facts to create a true embrace of the serpent?

Guerra: At the beginning of the project, I wanted to make a historical and anthropologically accurate film. I did extensive, in-depth research on the subject. I structured the script in a way that was faithful to what really happened. But, then, as I started working with the Amazonian communities, I realized that their point of view regarding this story had never been told. That was the real film that I had to do because it’s the one film that hasn’t been done, that I have never seen, and that would make the film unique and special. In order for the film to be true to that, I had to stop being faithful to the “truth” because, to them, ethnographic, anthropological, and historical truths were as fictional as imagination and dream, which for them was valid. The historical film needed to contaminate itself with Amazonian myth.

I wanted the film to feel more like an Indian tale than a normal film; but, then, as I went into that [indigenous] storytelling method, I realized the film would become incomprehensible for an audience. I would lose the connection to them because it’s such a different way of storytelling and understanding. I understood that the film needed to be a bridge. It couldn’t be either way of storytelling. It had to invite the viewer into discovering this world with respect and understanding. It had to talk to the viewer, in a way.

Reading Richard Evans-Schultes’s journals, I came upon a story about Theodor Koch-Grünberg when he arrived to the Taurepán people at the border between Colombia and Venezuela. He spent a couple of months with them. Schultes had followed the footsteps of Koch-Grünberg who had been there thirty years before him. When he made his way to the Taurepán people, they kept talking about the myth of surumbuku, referring to surumbuku again and again until he realized that it was Koch-Grünberg they were talking about; he had been turned into a myth over the decades. Not only that, but the indigenous people were looking at Schultes and seeing surumbuku as well. For them, he was the same man as Koch-Grünberg. When I read that, it struck me as a brilliant way that we could understand this Amazonian way of thinking: a single story being told through the lives of two men; a single soul inhabiting the lives of two men. I told myself, “Now I have a story.”

Cineaste: It’s a fascinating bifurcated structure that furthers this indigenous narrative, which articulates the trauma of colonialism. The indigenous people recognized the Western explorers to be crazy with soul sickness and yet they remained willing to share their wisdom with them. In your film, contact has devastated the tribe of the native guide Karamakate, who has emerged as the sole survivor.

Guerra: But to be clear, Karamakate’s people in my film are a fictional people. During the process, I realized that I didn’t have the right to make a fiction about a real tribe, but that it wasn’t important to make it ethnographically real. To do so, I would have had to spend forty years with a single community to accurately represent an indigenous group. Fiction allowed me liberty. I took elements from different communities. In that way I was not disrespecting anyone.

Embrace of the Serpent illustrates “an Amazonian way of thinking.”

Embrace of the Serpent illustrates “an Amazonian way of thinking.”

Cineaste: Even if fictional, I was struck by Karamakate’s generosity as an indigenous informant in providing information and guidance to both explorers, first Theo (based on Koch-Grünberg, and portrayed by Jan Bijvoet) and much later Evan (based on Richard Evans-Schultes, and portrayed by Brionne Davis). Theo, particularly, struck me as desperate and insensitive in his illness. In the face of such exploitation and disrespect, why would Karamakate be willing to help him?

Guerra: I can see that you have a great respect and understanding for indigenous people and their cultures, and that’s what Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans-Schultes have given us—before them, there was no respect at all for these cultures—and it was because these cultures themselves decided to share this knowledge with them. Originally, they did not want to share this knowledge. They felt the white man was a danger and that he would use this knowledge for the worst; but, when they met these explorers, they decided to share their knowledge and then these explorers brought that knowledge to us. It changed the world. It was a revolution that’s not so well-known. The diaries of Schultes, as you know, were read by influential people and were part of the counterculture that changed the world in the mid-twentieth century, from the first ecological movements to the hippie movement to the psychedelia movement to the visionary journey. They had a huge impact and we are different for it.

When Theodor Koch-Grünberg first went into the Amazon one hundred years ago, he was the first to refer to the indigenous people in humanistic terms as the people of the Amazon.

Cineaste: What was the importance of presenting how the rubber industry impacted the cultures of the Amazon? Can you speak to how the discovery of rubber forecast the end of an indigenous way of life?

Guerra: The rubber plantations are one of the darkest chapters in Colombian history. It’s horrible. The rubber industry was huge at the end of the nineteenth century and Manaus in Brazil was like Dubai is now: it was the richest city in the world, the most luxurious, because of the rubber exploitation, which was based on the slavery and decimation of hundreds of indigenous cultures, and hundreds of thousands of people. It was so brutal that it’s a story that remains hidden. It was denounced by Sir Roger Casement, the subject of Mario Vargas Llosa’s most recent novel, The Dream of the Celt. Casement exposed the rubber industry and that was one of the reasons the industry declined. But before the industry went down in the 1930s, it had already devastated the lives of thousands and thousands of people.

That was actually my first interest when I came to this story, but I realized early on that I did not want to make a story about a holocaust, a genocide. That wasn’t the movie I was making, which was more about the knowledge that was being lost. The journals of Koch-Grünberg were emphatic about that. He came to know that while making contact with this knowledge for the first time, at the same time that it was disappearing. There are quite a few of the cultures that he met, spent time with, and wrote about where the only thing we know about them is what he wrote. They disappeared completely. It was just the most savage form of capitalism, but it’s always been something like that. Before rubber, it was quina (not to be confused with quinoa). After rubber, it was coca for drug trafficking. Now it’s mining. All are examples of the destruction that is wrought by the pursuit of natural resources, which is what we see when we look at the Amazon—a surplus of natural resources.

Cineaste: I’ve heard you mention that for the indigenous people who live in the Amazon there are fifty words for the color green, which indicates a sophisticated appreciation of their environment. Learning this as you were working in the Amazon, did any one of those particular colors of green speak to you?

Guerra: It was how it was when I approached classical music for the first time. When I was a kid, all classical music sounded the same to me. When I finally stopped long enough to listen, I discovered nothing could be further away from the truth. That’s what happened to me with the color green in the Amazon. When I first arrived, it was just green—green like any other green. Through the time I spent there, and through the time I spent with my indigenous informants, it changed my perception so much. It’s the same with rain or with wind. You realize how out of touch we’ve become with the world we live in.

Cineaste: Returning to your fictional narrative structure, you have the two explorers connected by their common use of the same guide Karamakate, portrayed in his youth by Nilbio Torres and then in his senior years by Antonio Bolívar Salvador. Would you discuss what was involved in casting the two actors? And does the name Karamakate have a meaning?

Guerra: Yes, it means “the man who tries.” During the process in which I talked to so many indigenous people, I spoke with several elders and shamans and there was just no way that I could see them acting in the movie, or asking them to be this character. I didn’t feel that I would be able to communicate with them and direct them. They are so far away from the time depicted in the movie. Their generation has become so disconnected. They live in a world that’s so difficult for us to reach. I couldn’t see a way to bring them into a film. It would have taken decades of work.

So, instead, I began watching everything that had been filmed in the Colombian Amazon over the years, which was basically a few documentaries, a few short films, with indigenous people who had seen a camera and knew what it was about. I watched a film ten years ago in a workshop with the Ministry of Culture that had been made about twenty-five years ago, and there was this person in this short film who was there for only about two minutes. He was such a strong presence—such a strong man—that I was impressed. I thought, “Maybe this guy’s still alive? Maybe I can look him up and see what he looks like now?” I looked for his name in the credits and asked around about him. I found his house, walked up to his door, and when he came out, that’s when I knew the film would be made, that it could be made, because he was there; it was him. There was nobody else that could play this guy.

He’s one of the last Ocaina people remaining. There’s only about sixteen of them left. His language is about to disappear. They are very special people. Their eyes are blue. He was displaced by the rubber exploitation when he was very young, escaped from that, and started living with the Huitoto people, which is a different culture but he survived with them. He had this life story that was so strikingly close to the story, but the problem was that he had such a bad experience making the short film—they had treated him so bad—that he said he would never do it again.

Nilbio Torres as Young Karamakate

Nilbio Torres as Young Karamakate

Cineaste: How did you convince him?

Guerra: We had to sit down and explain to him why we wanted to do it. He was knowledgeable. When he looked at you, you felt like you were being X-rayed. You asked him a question and he would look at you. I gave him my reasons for why I thought this story was important and why it was important to make the film. He understood it. He said, “I think I can trust you, so we can try.”

Cineaste: As a director, was it important for these two actors to interact with each other in order to create a sustained character?

Guerra: We had three months of preparation for the film. We did a lot of work with the two of them together. They were both together during the discovery process. They played a lot together. We didn’t tell them at first that they were playing the same character, but they figured it out. They started playing with that. One of them would start acting like the other one. One of them would exercise at talking like the other one. When they started playing like this, we saw the potential. They didn’t know each other before because they’re from different villages, but they became close friends. They gave us a lot of material to work with in order to turn them into the same character.

Cineaste: How did you balance out the characterizations of the two explorers?

Guerra: Richard Evans-Schultes was undoubtedly an amiable man. People loved him and people looked up to him. He was like a hero. But that’s not so interesting. There was a dark side to him that people definitely didn’t want to get into, but I wanted to go there. He had come to the Amazon as an employee of the United States government and, for me, that humanized him. When I met Brionne Davis, I found out what I was looking for because Brionne usually plays villains.

Cineaste: He provided a necessary shading?

Guerra: I wanted someone who would come off as the nicest guy—as Brionne is in real life—but with a darker shade to him, as with his villainous roles. I wanted someone who could play a character that I wasn’t sure I could trust. I wanted the audience to ask themselves: “Can I trust this guy or not?” That’s what the main character Karamakate keeps asking himself.

The two stories counter each other. In the first, there’s one young and one old, and in the second, the characters swap ages. In many ways I wanted the audience to be able to tell clearly the visual difference between Theo and Evan, even though they were supposed to be in a way the same spirit. We worked with makeup and wardrobe to create small shades of each others’ characters.

Cineaste: As such, they become archetypal explorers, whose adventure you respect, even as you recognize it comes with damage. Embrace of the Serpent emphasizes the role cinema plays in preserving and articulating the indigenous experience and, by extension, the shamanic experience, especially at a juncture where the youth of these cultures are no longer invested in traditional ways. I’ve read that you consider cinema to be something of a dream machine, so can you speak to the importance of articulating these indigenous dreams? Is there any danger in trying to replicate a worldview that has been lost? Is there a risk of falsely romanticizing such a worldview?

Guerra: There are several questions within the one. What you say about elders being concerned over the disinterest of young people today is true. That’s the main problem that they have today. Young people are attracted by Western culture and they want to be in the capitalist world, but they don’t fit in when they try to do it. In the region where we shot the film, it has led to various people committing suicide because they don’t feel that they belong to either world. It’s a big identity crisis. That’s true for today, for recent times. In the community, the process of making the movie—more than the movie itself—has had a huge impact. We decided not to work with communities that were too far outside the Western world. We wanted to work with communities that were closer to the small villages and cities in the Amazon so that they would know commerce and we could pay them without affecting their way of life too much. If we dealt with people who were on the edge, it could make a significant difference. These are people who don’t deal with money, for instance, who don’t deal with what a production inevitably brings.

For the young people of the region, it was a big deal to see that we wanted to do the film in their indigenous language and that we were bringing foreign actors to play in the indigenous language. They found it funny that only a few years ago people from abroad, priests and such, would insist that they not speak in their indigenous language, and now we—as filmmakers—wanted them to speak in their indigenous language. For us to learn their indigenous language struck them as ironic. But young people, when they see this film, think maybe their culture is important after all and that this knowledge, culture, and language that we don’t hear so much about may be their biggest asset. And it is, I think. Not only for them, but for us. Especially for a country like Colombia. This culture and what it can give to the world is our biggest asset as a country, more than mining our natural resources. Certainly, as this film has proven, the world wants to hear about it, the world wants to know about it. It’s important right now because I find it staggering how a millennial-old myth can speak to contemporary men.

Amazonians were delighted to see their mountains onscreen.

Amazonians were delighted to see their mountains onscreen.

Cineaste: Have the folks in the Amazon been able to see the film?

Guerra: Yes, the first ones to see it were, of course, the actors. Nilbio Torres, who played the young Karamakate, had never even seen a film before. After the film, I asked him, “What was it for you?” He said it was scary. We brought him to Bogotá to do the final sound work and we showed him an unfinished version of the film and he said, “I was in Bogotá, it was a city, very strange to me, but then the lights went out and, suddenly, I was in the jungle again. Everything felt real.” When he saw the jaguar in the film, he had never seen a jaguar up close. He had actually hunted them but to see a jaguar up close was an experience for him. As for the hallucinatory sequence, he said he almost fainted because he was so scared.

But they loved it. They said, “This is what we were doing. This is unbelievable. We loved it.” After the film premiered in Venice, we managed to screen the film for the people in the Amazon. We screened it three times in different places. It was a big deal for the people there. Some of them walked for three days to see the film because they came from so far away. We managed to turn a maloca, an Amazonian longhouse, into a cinema for one night. It was magical.

For them it was a big deal to see their language on screen. There are some words of the Ocaina language in the film. The Ocaina language will disappear in this generation. It is spoken by only sixteen people, so it was a big deal for them. To see foreign actors speaking their language was powerful. When they saw the mountains at the end of the film—that’s a very big part of their mythology—it was like a football game: everyone was screaming and clapping. That was one of the most emotional screenings I’ve ever attended.

Cineaste: Let’s discuss David Gallego’s remarkable cinematography. What possessed you to shoot in 35mm in the Amazon? There have, of course, been comparisons to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. How did you negotiate the equipment? How did the equipment fare under such humid conditions? Or, most importantly, how did you maintain patience waiting for the film to be processed?

Guerra: Digital is an interesting medium. I like it to shoot scenes with artificial light and for urban settings. But for nature and natural light, film is unbeatable because it’s organic. The image is really there. When you capture the image, it’s captured physically on the film. It’s an organic medium. It gives you a sense that no digital image can replicate. When you want to have information on every little bit of the frame, every leaf, every shade of gray, it has to be on film. Digital tends to blend all of that.

But, yes, to film in 35mm represented a challenge. Still, it had some benefits. Film cameras are a technology developed to record war, especially during WWII, so they’re rugged machines. They don’t have the problem with humidity and condensation that digital cameras have. They are better, much stronger cameras for extreme conditions. Also, with digital you don’t have the limits of film so you can do twenty-five takes of the same scene. Since we had decided to shoot on film, it meant we could only do two takes. It was take one, take two. Anything other than that posed a problem. That limited us, but those limits worked beautifully. First of all, if we took twenty-five takes of every scene, we couldn’t have met the shooting schedule, which was extremely tight.

Cineaste: Shooting on film heightens concentration and focus?

Guerra: Yes, and it becomes a sacred thing. The main challenge was, as you mentioned, how to get the film developed. Every three days the film would be taken to the airport and shipped to a lab in Argentina. That meant we didn’t have dailies; we had more like weeklies or monthlies.

Cineaste: Didn’t that generate anxiety for you?

Guerra: Only until we got the call from the lab that said, “Everything’s okay.” Then we would wait to see them. When the first material came back, we all had the same feeling—“It was so worth it.  This is special.” Rushes are the hardest part of filmmaking for me because they’re usually shit. The movie may eventually be very good, but the rushes can be depressing to watch. But that was not the case at all with this movie. I’ve never seen rushes look so good, so beautiful.

Cineaste: Tell me about David Gallego. Have you worked with him before?

Guerra: This is the first movie that we’ve done together, though he was an assistant cameraman on my previous film. He’s also my wife’s brother so we’re close and have been friends for a long time. He’s learned his craft the long way, from the camera loader to the focus puller to the camera assistant to the lighting assistant. He knows how to perform every function on the camera crew. He’s done it all and knows it inside out on a technical, detailed level. He has also developed such an eye, which is not about doing things pretty, but about storytelling and how every image should tell a story. He has a sensibility for that.

Also, with regard to this movie, I have to say that I have never seen anyone work so hard. He was just unbeatable. We would all be destroyed by the middle of the day’s shoot, but he would be there whenever I’d ask him to do something difficult. He was like the enemy in Terminator 2. He was relentless. That had a large part to do with the movie coming into being. He became a leader and pulled us all through in a way because he believed in it so much. For all the crew it became a personal experience. This movie demanded of everyone whatever they did in any other movie times ten.

Cineaste: Did you guide him with storyboards? How did the two of you collaborate on the look and flow of the movie?

Guerra: Yes, I did storyboards because it was the only way I could make this film happen. We had to shoot on a very tight budget and on a very tight schedule. I needed to have done my homework. I needed to be clear on set because the crew needed me to be clear. For me, the storyboard is already a highly personal process. It’s like the sheet music for an orchestra. It tells everyone what the film is and how we’re going to play it. But, of course, it’s never cast in stone—shooting is a collaborative process—but, I’ve already had a dream of what it’s going to be, of what every shot is going to be. What David brings me is everything that makes that come alive, which is lenses, textures, shades, colors, contrasts. We do a lot of tests. We have a huge preproduction where we test lenses, film, and the development process, to get the look that we want. He’s an expert at that. I explain to him what I need in a poetic way and he brings my poetry to a technical, mathematical level.

Cineaste: Why was it important to shoot Embrace of the Serpent in black and white?

Guerra: There were so many reasons. I could speak for two hours about why it was important to shoot the film in black and white. It was such a huge decision. The first inspiration for the film were the images taken by the explorers. Those images were unbelievable when I saw them. They were daguerreotype photographic plates. When you saw them, you saw an Amazon that was completely different than the Amazon that you think about. It was completely devoid of exuberance and exoticism. It was a different world and time. Looking at it through those images, I started thinking this film should be in black and white.

When I went to the Amazon, I realized that it would not be possible for any kind of film, any kind of video, any kind of representation, to give you a real idea of what the green of the Amazon is. As we mentioned earlier, Amazonian people have fifty words for what we call green. I thought, maybe by taking it away it would be possible to trigger the imagination. It’s not the real Amazon you see in the film—it’s an imagined Amazon—but what we imagine would certainly be more real than what I could portray. Also, when I talked to the Amazonian people, I realized that with black-and-white images there was no difference between nature being green and us being something else. Every human, every bird, every drop of water is made up the same in black and white so it was perfectly coherent. I decided the film had to be in black and white and we had to overcome the expectations of a lot of people, but we stuck to it. If I had been forced to film in color, I would have preferred not to do it.

Cineaste: With Colombia’s film industry kicking into gear no less than a decade ago when incentives were introduced, how did you convince the powers that be to let you film on 35mm?

Guerra: What happened was that the people who worked on films and made movies really made their living in advertising. Back in the Nineties, advertising was done on film. Advertising became a big industry in Colombia, so there was a lot of equipment for film, which is no longer used but is still in really good shape, so we can get it cheaply. The problem is getting film stock. That’s a challenge. Hopefully this lab in Argentina, which is the only lab left in South America, will continue to work.

My first film was a $30,000 film. I come from the low-budget school. For me, filmmaking is a lot about making the best of what you can with the resources that you have. I like that because it forces me to be creative. With this film there is as much creativity in the story as there is behind the scenes in the production and craft of making it. That excites me. This movie looks like it was expensive but it was not as expensive as it looks.

Cineaste: Why did you want to be a filmmaker?

Guerra: Basically, what I have always been interested in since I was very little is storytelling. It’s something that comes from inside me. When I was a child, I would tell stories however I could. I would write. I would draw comics. Storytelling was a passion for me. But ever since I discovered cinema, I always felt it was the best way to tell a story. Turning the lights off and keeping the audience captive in the dark is like telling a bedtime story. But, of course, trying to be a filmmaker in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s was like wanting to be an astronaut or something equally ridiculous. There was just no industry. When I finally realized that I really couldn’t do anything else, it made me feel alive. I just said, “I don’t care if I’m going to be poor or hungry. The happiness that I get from cinema is so much that I don’t care. I’m willing to sacrifice my well-being for it.” I was ready to suffer a lot, which hasn’t happened fortunately. Things have worked out in such a way that I’m able to make films as a professional. My first film, The Wandering Shadows, was a nightmare definitely and there was a lot of suffering in the making of it but it was a wonderful experience and it did very well, even though it was a humble film. I like it, it’s a special film, but it’s a minimal film. It opened the doors to continue to do film. After that, things have happened in such a way that I really don’t know how we got to this point.

Cineaste: You strike me as someone who has learned something deep from this experience. What have you learned?

Guerra: I’m still working that out because this was an experience that’s difficult to describe in a few words or anecdotes. This film made me realize that what we do is what mankind has been doing for the past 30,000 to 35,000 years. We are storytellers. Filmmakers do the same thing as storytellers in their communities. We gather the people around the fire. We tell a story with light and shadow. Filmmaking is the same, using different tools, but, in the end, it’s the same. This realization has been startling because a craft that I thought was modern and psychological is connected to something that is thousands of years old.

Cineaste: Colombia has submitted twenty-three films prior to this one to the Academy Awards, including your first two films. This is the country’s first film to be nominated for an Oscar. You’re going where no other Colombian has gone before!

Guerra: This is a very special moment for us. This is the year where, finally, after fifty years of conflict, we’re about to sign a peace agreement. It’s a special moment full of hope. We didn’t have cinema in Colombia ten years ago. We only made about two films a year and now we’re at this moment where we’re about to start looking back at the darkest period of our history. Cinema is hope, and a way of telling our stories: who are we in this context? There are a lot of young people who believe in cinema. Cinema has not been something that we’ve been allowed to be proud of in the past, so this means a lot for the Colombian people. I hope that the movies will mean more than the awards, but it’s a moment when a lot of people who don’t believe in Colombian cinema are starting to believe. There’s a reason to be optimistic.

Michael Guillén, a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, is a freelance journalist who contributes to several print and online venues, and administers The Evening Class.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 2