THE PINK DOLPHIN / Amazon tribe is nearly extinct
Embrace of the Serpent star: ‘My tribe is nearly extinct’
Their land was plundered for rubber while they were enslaved or killed. As Embrace of the Serpent tells the shocking story of the tribespeople of Colombia, its star relives a moving screening in the heart of the jungle
It was nominated for an Oscar and won an award at Cannes. But for Antonio Bolívar Salvador, Embrace of the Serpent’s most important moment took place far from the shining beaches of LA and the Riviera – in the jungles of Vaupés in Colombia.
A screening of the film, which tells the story of an Amazonian shaman in the 1900s, was held in a maloka – or traditional longhouse. Tribespeople young and old hiked through the jungle for days to reach the makeshift cinema. Too many to be seated, they packed in together and watched standing up. When the film, which was shot in the area, was over, they called for it to be shown again.
“I didn’t realise it would be so valuable, this work we did,” says Salvador, who plays the shaman Karamakate. The 61-year-old didn’t just act in the film, though. He also helped rewrite the script and translated it into several languages.
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Karamakate is the last of his Amazonian tribe, an elder without any young. At one point in the film, he tells his American companion, who is searching for a sacred plant: “I wasn’t meant to teach my people. I was meant to teach you.” It’s a line full of resonance for Salvador, since he is himself among the last of a tribe: the blue-eyed Ocaina, of the Colombian Amazon. “The Ocaina are nearly extinct,” he says, adding that now just a few people speak their tongue. He has even forgotten it himself, having been raised by the Huitoto after rubber barons broke up his family when he was a boy.
The Ocaina are far from alone: even the more populous tribes are afraid their ways are dying out. “Civilised culture is destroying our culture,” says Salvador. “Young people don’t want to know about tradition – they only want to know about modern life.”
Embrace of the Serpent hopes to change that. The director Ciro Guerra, who was also at the longhouse screening, says the audience suddenly perceived the knowledge of the elders as relevant, even cool. “When they saw the film and heard their own languages – especially foreign actors speaking them – it struck them in a very positive way.”
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Jan Bijvoet as Theo, the 1909 explorer. Photograph: Peccadillo Pictures
Salvador was initially suspicious when Guerra approached him. “Not knowing that world, it’s easy to get caught out,” he says. “And it’s hard to get help if you are an indigenous man.” Yet the more Guerra explained the project, the more Salvador believed it could be beneficial.
Guerra says watching the excesses of the rubber barons and the missionaries in the film had a cathartic effect on the descendants of the tribespeople who survived the rubber booms of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, a time of enslavement and massacre. “That is completely taboo,” he says. “It hasn’t been spoken about in decades. It’s politically dangerous and, to them, also traumatic.” According to one estimate, 90% of indigenous people were wiped out. In 1903, some 25 of Salvador’s people were clothed in petrol-soaked sacks and torched by a plantation overseer.
Even now, the landscape remains a place in peril. Some tribes cling to their traditional lands and ways, choosing isolation as a defence. But illegal miners rob gold, tungsten and cobalt from the ground beneath reservations, feeding profits to paramilitary groups. And for 20 years, the Colombian government has bombed coca farms on indigenous land with the herbicide glyphosate. According to the tribes, this has caused cancer and birth defects.
“These are people who have managed to live in the same place for 10,000 years without overpopulating it, without polluting it, without destroying its resources,” says Guerra. “That knowledge is essential to modern mankind.” Yet Embrace of the Serpent should not, he says, be viewed as an attempt to convey traditional knowledge. “It has no anthropological value whatsoever. What you see in the film is not the Amazon. It’s an imagined Amazon because the real Amazon doesn’t fit into one film. It really doesn’t fit into a thousand films.”
According to its producers, Embrace of the Serpent is the first Colombian fiction feature to be shot in the Amazon in more than three decades – and the first ever to be told from the perspective of an indigenous protagonist. The tribes were enlisted not only as actors, but as crew and interpreters. At first, Guerra was met with scepticism. “They need to understand the profound reasons why you are doing something like this,” he says. “So you have to look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘What is the reason I am doing this? Is it to win awards, is it to make money, is it to make a film that’s famous?’ And if those are the answers, you should pack up and leave.”
After much soul-searching, Guerra told the elders that his intention was simply to learn and share what he found out. “To them, that is completely valid because they believe in storytelling for these reasons.” Even so, the communities insisted Guerra return with the result of their work – hence the screening in Vaupés. The people are tired of the west and its take, take, take attitude. Salvador refused to be interviewed by the Guardian until he was promised a copy of the newspaper. “That’s very important,” he says. “The proof one has done the work.”
This struggle to steer away from exploitation and find a path to mutual enrichment is one that faces each character in the film. In two upriver journeys (one in 1909, the other in the 1940s) Karamakate accompanies western travellers – based on the real-life explorers Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes – as they search for the sacred psychedelic yakruna plant.
Salvador plays the older Karamakate on the second trip, who comes to realise what he and the land have lost. Filled with remorse at his forgotten memories, he calls himself “chullachaqui” – meaning an empty man-shaped ghost – and begs Evan, as his American companion is called in the film, to guide him through his own jungle.
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The journey upriver in search of a psychedelic plant Photograph: Peccadillo Pictures
Decades earlier he had met Theo, another explorer, who sought to protect the integrity of Amazonian knowledge. When a compass is stolen from Theo by a friendly tribe, he violently insists it be returned lest the instrument interfere with their traditional navigation methods. He is scolded by the young Karamakate, played by Nilbio Torres, also indigenous. “You can’t forbid them to learn,” Karamakate tells the explorer. “Knowledge belongs to all men.”
Herein lies the central conundrum for the Amazonian people. The romanticisation of the noble savage is anathema to men such as Salvador, even more so to his five sons and 19 grandchildren and great grandchildren, who want “mobile phones, computers, tablets”. As he says: “People still think that, in the Amazon, people run around naked wearing just loincloths. Civilisation, sophisticated modern life, has changed things.”
Guerra agrees: “[Indigenous people] don’t have this idea of their traditional way of life being pure or needing to remain untouched. That is an idea we have. To them, they live in conditions where you take what you need and make the best of it. They don’t want to live the way they used to, 100 years ago, any more than you do.”
So what’s to be done? For traditional knowledge to survive, believes Salvador, tribes must adapt: children should spend the first 10 years of their lives in traditional communities learning the knowledge of the jungle. Then they can move into more westernised education, at schools and universities. After all, he says: “Here is the pure oxygen, sweet water and knowledge. Infinite things are in the Amazon.”
Embrace of the Serpent is out on 10 June. Antonio Bolívar Salvador’s words were translated with the help of Sofia Serbin de Skalon from Celluloid Circus.
Source: The Guardian
Gustavo López Ospina
Pieter Jan Brouwer
Assistant: Emilia Romero
SELVA Vida Sin Fronteras acknowledges Kevin Schafer’s important contribution towards protecting the highly endangered Amazon pink fresh water dolphin. Title photographs of our “The Pink Dolphin” were taken by Mr. Schafer.