Embrace of the Serpent (dir. Ciro Guerra, 2016)puts forth an Amazonian landscape that is as expressive as the characters that move through her rivers; it tells the heedlessly forsaken story of Indigenous Peoples exploited and decimated by the rapacious malaise of colonialism and capitalism. Told in the Indigenous tongues that bible-bearing missionaries tried to silence, Embrace of the Serpent is at once an obscene reality of colonialism and a dream-like voyage to find a sacred plant. And our guide is Karamakate and the river.
Colombia and Brazil underwent a rubber boom during the late 1900s and early 20th century, making them countries of great wealth with opulent rubber barons that nearly extinguished Indigenous life and culture. Rubber barons made slaves out of entire Indigenous populations, submitting them to torture, rape, mutilations. Julio Cesar Arana infamously made his wealth off the indigenous people he enslaved; “in the 12 years that Arana operated on the Putumayo River in Colombia, the native population fell from over 30,000 to less than 8,000 while he exported over 4,000 tons of rubber earning over $75 million” (A Brief History of Rubber, Mongabay).
The rubber trade in South America ended around 1930, allegedly because the United Kingdom was made aware of the genocide that led to the murdering of 100,000 Indigenous Peoples. But the United Kingdom’s trade-exodusfrom South America coincided with harvesting rubber from their colonies in Malaysia and Sri Lanka; rubber trees that purportedly came from 70,000 seeds stolen from Brazil. This event is still referred to in Brazil as the “great rubber theft.” And it was. But Brazilians and Colombians were not the most transgressed. Theft is one of colonialism’s strongest legacies in the Americas. The unsurmised theft that I speak of is what colonialism and capitalism have taken from Indigenous Peoples through exploitive and oppressive practices grounded in racism and extends beyond their lands and resources. Colonialism and capitalism have stolen from Indigenous Peoples their history and representation; ancestral legacies of rituals and technologies and science; languages and systems of knowledge. And probably so much more that I can’t name because I can’t comprehend.
The rubber trade in Embrace of the Serpent is peripheral to the story, as is the mission where European missionaries flog children for speaking their native tongue. Because to solely focus on any one of these colonizing practices and legacies would be to risk isolating the long history of colonization to one event, to lose track of colonialism’s insidious and metamorphic nature. While Colombian director Ciro Guerra loosely based Embrace of the Serpent on the anecdotes of German scientist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (in 1909) and American biologist Richard Evans Schultes (in 1949), it is the fictional shamanic character of Karamakate who connects parallel stories of exploratory men set thirty years apart from each other. The film snakes between stories as both explorers seek the sacred and medicinal Yakruna plant for different reasons.
Theodor (Jan Bijvoet) is a German explorer dying of a tropical disease and whose life depends on the curative properties of the Yakruna plant. A reluctantly young Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), one of the last survivors of Cohiuano Peoples, decides to guide Theodor and his companion Manduca( Miguel Dionisio Ramos) upriver to find the Yakruna plant, emboldened by Theodor’s knowledge of where to find the last surviving Cohiuano Peoples. Around thirty years later, another white man comes seeking the kept knowledge of a now older Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar) who lives in isolation because Colombians and rubber barons exterminated the last surviving members of the Cohiuano Peoples. Evans hopes to use the magical properties of the Yakruna to cure the malady that has caused Western society to forget to dream. But as an employee of the US government—at war with Japan which controlled rubber production in Asia—Evans has ulterior motives for finding the Yakruna plant as it purifies the rubber trees it grows near.
The chiaroscuro film shot on a 35-millimeter black-and-white camera has as many meanings as it does shades of black and white and grey. Silence is loud as it tends to be in a prodigious rainforest. And the dialogue is rich, raising questions of knowledge that can shift paradigms of thought. The river is the non-human person that is the heart of this film; she is the waterway that is in relation with everything, defining the Amazons with its nature and people and culture.
The river is where time folds back on itself and rushes forward to connect the parallel stories unfolding decades apart. To move between stories, Ciro Guerra never cuts; he transitions between time and its respective stories by panning the camera along the surface of the water. The relationship between rivers and time is an ancestral belief in many cultures. One description of rivers and time that I find particularly compelling is from Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Kimmerer shares, “Some people say that time is a river into which we can step but once, as it flows in a straight path to the sea. But Nanabozo’s people know that time as a circle. Time is not a river running inexorably to the sea, but the sea itself—its tides that appear and disappear, the fog that rises to becomes rain in a different river. All the things that were will come again.” (Braiding Sweetgrass, 206- 207). Understanding things—rivers, peoples, animals, elements—as being in relationship with each other, rather than isolated entities bound by categories, is a knowledge-framework echoed throughout Embrace of the Serpent.
The aversion to reducing time and perspective to something linear and eschatological with an end is expressed thoughtfully in Embrace of the Serpent ina scene when Karamakate is approaching the end of his journey with Evans. As they stand by the riparian of the river, the following dialogue ensues:
Karamakate: “How many edges does a river have?”
Karamakate: “How can you know that?”
Evans: “Because! One plus one equals two.”
Karamakate: “Well, you’re wrong. This river has three, five, a thousand edges. A child can understand that easily, but not you. The river is the anaconda’s son. We learn that in our dreams, but it’s the real truth, more real than what you call reality.”
Evans goes to pull out his map, but before he can unfold it, Karamakate snatches it and throws it in the river, saying, “What do you see? The world is like this, huge.” as he moves his arms through the air. “But you choose to see just this,” and he points to the soddened map.
There are different knowledge-frameworks through which we process information to make sense of the world. There is value in conceptualizing the world as the flattened scape we see on maps.
But there is also something perilous about reducing that which is so much more comprehensive than vectors and numbers to mere vectors and numbers. When thinking about Western science practices, built upon the scientific method, and categorizing the natural world into hierarchies, it makes me wonder if our practice of reducing a fish, for example, to its genetic makeup (enabling neat categorization) is not an oversimplification of that fish. While a fish can be understood by the different categories that Western practices of science place it in, is there not great value in understanding how the fish is in relationship with its ecosystem and biome. Venerating Indigenous knowledge outside of science, in a science-driven world, aligns with the categorization of Western science practices. Would it not be sagacious to include these Indigenous modalities to look at the world like this (an imaginary sweeping of your arms in every direction) into Western scientific practices.
* (To be continued, Part II)
“A Brief History of Rubber.” Rainforests.mongabay.com, rainforests.mongabay.com/10rubber.htm.