Embracing “The Embrace of the Serpent”


The Embrace of the Serpent  is an adventure and drama film that uses long shots to locate the public in the Colombian Amazon geography describing the relationship between the indigenous people and the  land, the river and the universe.  The use of long shots depict how was the encounter of two different kinds of knowledge, the ancestral indigenous  and the western, in the midst of two different historical moments for Latin America and the world. The first was the rubber boom in the early 1900s and the second was the era of the Second World War. Long shots are mixed with close-ups and mid shots to present a direct dialogue among  the powerful shaman  Karamkate (last survivor of its own tribe) and two foreign explorers (characters inspired by the diaries of early explorers who traveled to the Colombian Amazon, Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evan Schultes), creating a poetic narrative of the Amazon history with a panning shot that emphasizes the speakers as they move through the majestic landscape of the Amazon rainforest. The sounds evoke the nature and provide a reflexive character about the narrative made by the intense and meta-cognitive dialogues.  This is a film with a lot of light despite being filmed in black and white, as the intention of the director was to allow the viewer to set its own relationship with the Amazon since, as he affirms, it is impossible to portray this region in color, not to mention the fact that the indigenous people of the area had more than fifty words to define what we know as “green”.

Having said that, we can  move forward to talk about  the legacy of the movie and the problems that it raises. In order to continue with this binary narrative, I will suggest that there are two main or relevant axis in the plot. The first one, is the retrieve of the Amazon for the world and the second the recovery of the indigenous peoples’ dignity. As we know, (important remark in times of a generalized environmental crisis characterized by global warming, pollution, scarcity of resources) the Amazon Basin contains the world’s largest rainforest, which represents over 60 percent of the world’s remaining rainforests. The Amazon rainforest affords the planet with irreplaceable ecosystem services that are increasingly being recognized by researchers and policymakers.[1] In the case of Colombia, it can be argued that the State only become aware of its Amazonic territory during the war with Perú in 1932 and 1933 in the rule of the president Enrique Olaya Herrera. The dispute was the result of a dissatisfaction with the Salomón – Lozano Treaty (1922) based in the establishment of the borders for the two countries, the war finally ended with the ratification of the treaty.

In this regard, the Amazon that the movie presents is a region of borders in which all the social and economic dynamics are determined by this condition including the exploitation of resources. A good example of this dynamic is that of the Arana Brothers Company, dedicated to the exploitation of rubber amid the boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the region. The company was well known by the larger human rights violations committed against its own laborers. More recently, keeping the same dynamic of exploitation, the region has suffered the consequences of the illegal economy of drug trafficking and the legal and also illegal mining. The State’s answer has been characterized mainly by military intervention and a very scarce social investment. These dynamics have deeply impacted indigenous people who live in the area. So, the call of the Embrace of the Serpent is to approach the Amazon from a new perspective, in which preservation and respect for its resources are the key.

The movie achieves the recovery of the indigenous peoples’ dignity through the powerful character of Karamakate, by giving a turn in the preconceptions that films like “Aguirre the wrath of God” had printed into the collective imaginary, spreading the mistaken belief that our indigenous peoples are savages and ignorants, but, goes forward proposing at the same time to bridge the gap between these two cultures for a harmonious coexistence. Karamakate tell us how this communities are the holders of the ancestral knowledge about the natural resources that the Amazon possesses, as well as, the use of botanical and  medical endemic plants, among other deeper wisdoms. These indigenous communities also have their own governments, and manage resources with environmental awareness, which has allowed them to advance an environmental management in the region, resisting the damage of the different exploitation booms  (or so called development). For such a reason, we can define the Amazon region as a humanized territory: result of the relationship of indigenous peoples with their surroundings based on environmental management of the territory, sustainability and pervivencia.

Finally, the movie raises a new debate on which it is necessary to reflect on: What is the interest of some American churches to contact the protected nomadic indigenous communities in the Amazon? What is the role of the researchers that nowadays visit the indigenous communities? Which is the main risk for the indigenous people? especially facing illegal, legal mining and transnational mining. Are the “consultation processes to indigenous peoples on research projects that are in intended to advance into their territory” effective tools for their real protection? Is the international community ready to advance in the implementation of standards for the protection of traditional knowledge and biodiversity?

[1]  “The Importance of the Amazon Rainforest.” Mongabay.com. Accessed April 20, 2016.  http://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/amazon_importance.htm.


Acknowledgments to GLAFF and Transformaciones for allowing me to be part of your journey, and to my dear friend Bernardo Pinilla Zuleta who shared his thoughts and time to crumble together this marvelous film.

Day Alvira-Vidal is an international student at the Center for Latin American Studies. Previously, she was a Human Rights Adviser for the Colombian government for a total of six years. She has experience in managing and monitoring risk situations for vulnerable populations and victims, and coordinating public entities and civil society, in the context of the Colombian armed conflict.  She has gained widespread knowledge analyzing and designing public policy with a human rights and gender approach. During this position, in 2013, she had the opportunity to serve as a Fellow of the Swedish International Development Agency for the Human Rights, Peace, and Security Program.


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