Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (2016) can be read as a brilliant subversion of the colonising role that the camera plays in appropriating native cultures in favour of Western narratives. The film, like other documentaries promoting the American Evangelical Reform movements, was influenced by the ethnographic accounts of ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (in 1909) and American biologist Richard Evans Schultes (in 1940), yet it deviates from uncomplicated transliteration of those accounts and weaves in various indigenous narratives to critique the colonialist discourse.
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The very rhetoric of documentary photography has its roots in the Western notions of “truth,” “presence,” and ethnography. From the American Tract Society’s illustrated publications elucidating the role of Christ in evangelical missions,1 to postcards and cartoons, photographers always had a plethora of Western narratives to be used as a frame of reference for extending the role of colonisation and imperialism through photography. John MacKenzie points out the intricate, yet glaring, relationship between colonial expansion and its strategies of visual moderation to promote the imperialist mission. He stresses the fact that photography has a quality of “self-generating ethos,” which was widely used in disseminating stereotypical constructs of native Americans, while hiding the obvious fact of conscious manipulations on behalf of the colonizer.2 Edward Curtis’s infamous manipulation of his photograph In a Piegan Lodge, portraying two native Indians, is one of the clearest examples, where he erased a clock in a later version of the photograph. Though he never explained its cause, this action of erasing the clock from the photograph metaphorically imposes the discourse of “timelessness” among the natives and legitimises the evangelical mission of “civilising” them. Photographs, as frozen evidences, devoid of temporal and spatial certainty, were grossly misappropriated and shifted into different contexts on the basis of ideological and theoretical positions of the colonizer.
The film narrativizes the experiences of the protagonist Karamakate in his two encounters with two different “white” ethnographers, Theo and Evans, thirty years apart. The reason why director Guerra chose to shoot the film in black and white illustrates the futility of the camera as a Western eye. He learned that the Amazonians have fifty different names for the colour green. Realising the inability of the camera to articulate the varied details, textures, and nuances of greenness, he decided to abandon the idea of shooting it in colour. This strategy invites the audience to fill the frame with their imaginations regarding the greenness of the Amazon, for the director claimed, “what we imagine would certainly be more real than what I could portray.”3
The narrative that Karamakate builds in explaining the origin of his lost tribe thematically binds the structure of the film. According to his narrative, extraterrestrial beings descended from the Milky Way, journeying on the back of a giant anaconda that later became the river, and whose wrinkled skins became the waterfalls. The pre-credits sequence, focusing on the younger Karamakate, and the post-credits sequence, on the older one, is demarcated by close-up shots of an anaconda giving birth to its younger ones. Thus, in the several years that passed between the arrivals of the two ethnographers, the theme of origin and regeneration is closely focused on by the director through the metaphorical representation of the natives’ origins, also indicating the inherent regenerative capacities of nature.
In order to find a cure for Theo’s unknown tropical disease, Karamakate leads him to his search for the “yakruna” flower while also seeking the remnants of his own tribe. And in the process Karamakate lets himself fall into an intricate web of colonial violence. On his way to help Theo, he encounters and registers the perspectives of colonized workers in Amazonian rubber plantations, the Christianisation and torture of native children, and Theo’s mission for anthropological knowledge, only to despair in the end to find his native rituals colonised and appropriated. But many years later, in Karamakate’s second encounter with ethnologist Evans, the scene starts with the close-up shot of a rock mural being painted by Karamakate. Here he inscribes his own narrative in contrast to the photographic “truth” taken by earlier ethnographers. This scene of focusing on the rewritten “history” of the natives just after the metaphorical creation scene almost marks a resurrection of tribal agency.
However, the subsequent interaction between Evans and an older Karamakate, along with his version of social memory, reflects a brilliant confrontation between the rhetoric of two completely different narrative media. Karamakate continuously undermines the “white” conceptualisation of memory and remembrance by going beyond the photographic parameters of perceiving and accumulating memories. In an attempt to “document” Amazonian knowledge, Evans photographs the abstract murals painted on the rock, but immediately falls back on his own understanding of photographic signifiers in order to interpret the “meaning” of those abstractions. The assigning of “meaning” and the fixation of indigeneity in time and space is an inherent aspect in the process of resource-exploitation and development interventions by colonizing nations. According to Jackson and Warren, the colonizers’ essentializing process of “freezing and reifying an identity in a way hides the historical processes and politics within which it develops,”4 a process that is incessantly carried out by photography.
In the course of Protestant Evangelism and successive World Wars, the discourse of photojournalism established itself within mainstream photographic practice, thus propagating the populist idea of photographic veracity. On the other hand, Karamakate’s conception of the “chullachaqui,” which developed from a myth of the Machiguenga people and bears an apparent similarity to the German idea of “doppelganger,” renders the art of photography incapable of articulating Amazonian diegesis.5 As Karamakate explains, a “chullachaqui” is a formless and empty copy of an individual being, which drifts about the forest with the sole motive of deceiving others. On seeing his own photograph with the ethnographer many years ago, he claims it to be a “chullachaqui,” a copy that only resembles the actual in its outward appearance: “It’s not him. It’s his chullachaqui … It looks like him, but it isn’t.” The veracity of photographic realism is again questioned when in a flashback we see the younger Karamakate stating the same thing regarding photographs, where he repeatedly describes the image in metaphysical terms and exposes its inability to resemble anything other than appearances.
As per the prevailing copyright law in the late nineteenth century, the photograph legally belonged to the person photographed or to the owner of the property depicted, and in some cases photographers didn’t even had the right to process their own negatives.6 Hence, the shift in the agency from the object depicted in a photograph to the photographer can be read as a significant aspect of photography’s authoritative attitude, where a monolithic flow of power is facilitated through the authorial policies of the newborn Western medium. Karamakate, however, regards the photograph as belonging to him, for the idea of “chullachaqui” is inseparable from the conception of the actual being. In making this claim, he also questions the idea of ownership in documentary photographic practices.
However, after manoeuvring Evans in the process of rediscovering his own narrative, he demands that Evans throw away his luggage “of knowledge gathered” and destroy the modes of production that generate ethnographic knowledge, among which the primary device is the camera. He not only eliminates the colonizer’s strategies of visual narratives but also re-inscribes their version of Amazonian myth in the colonizer’s consciousness. Here Karamakate uses the indigenous plant “caapi” to induce psychedelic dreams in Evans. He demonstrates the origin and the timelessness of his tribe’s own narrative, a narrative that is beyond the spatio-temporal dynamics of Western cosmology and that needs a divine level of inebriation through the course of a ritual preceding the consumption of the drink. However, unlike the objective language of early-twentieth-century photographic practices, Karamakate’s caapi “trip” is based purely on subjective suggestiveness, where one must “believe” in the traditional values in order to visualise and experience the cultural voice of Amazonians. Among many Amazonian forest societies the mechanism of cultural and biological survival is carried out through the “continuous cycle of ritual creation, destruction and re-creation,” and these are often manifested through the use of local drug-induced trance visions where they engage with their “mythical” past, and as Dolmatoff affirms, “the officiating shaman can adaptively orient the interpretations of the visions people project upon the vivid background of their hallucinations.”7
On re-analysing the power structure of this native visual language and comparing it with the Western ones, we find a striking similarity between the “caapi” drink and camera on the one hand, and the hallucinations and photographs on the other, and in this interaction we are recurrently reminded of the camera’s subordinated position. Even on a technical level we notice an interesting cinematic deficiency in the end of Embrace of the Serpent. Unlike the rest of the film, the psychedelic rendition of the dream in the end is shot in colour, which again marks the inability of the photographic medium to capture the indigenous spiritual experiences of the natives. The film, hence the camera, remains in a state of perpetual fluidity with shifting meanings and power structures regulating its means and methods of representation of the Amazonian cultural paradigms.
Dolmatoff, G. Reichel. “Cosmology as Ecological Analysis: A View from the Rain Forest.” Man (New Series), vol. 11, no. 3 (1976): 307-318. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2800273.
Eileraas, Karina. “Photography, Ownership and Feminist Resistance” MLN, vol. 118, no. 4 (2003): 807-840. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3251988
The Embrace of the Serpent. Directed by Ciro Guerra. 2015. New York: Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2016. DVD.
Guerra, Ciro. Cineaste. By Michael Guillen. www.cineaste.com, vol. XLI, no. 2, 2016. https://www.cineaste.com/spring2016/embrace-of-the-serpent-ciro-guerra/. Accessed 18 Apr 2017.
Jackson, Jean E. and Kay B. Warren. “Indigenous Movements in Latin America, 1992-2004: Controversies, Ironies, New Directions.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 34 (2005): 549-573. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25064898.
Long, Kathryn T. “Cameras Never Lie: The Role of Photography in Telling the Story of American Evangelical Missions.” Church History, vol. 72, no. 4 (2003): 820-851. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4146374.
Mackenzie, John M. Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.
McCullough, Susannah Bragg. “Ask the Director: In “Embrace of the Serpent” what is the meaning of chullachaqui?”. Screenprism, February 17, 2016. http://screenprism.com/insights/article/in-embrace-of-the-serpent-what-is-the-concept-of-the-chullachaqui. Accessed 18 April 2017.
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Note: All images are screenshots from the film.
- The first volume of Christian Almanac (1821) produced by the American Tract Society featured a wood engraving of an evangelical missionary along with a quote affirming Christ’s presence in the colonising project: “Lo, I am with you always.” Tract Society’s further publication like Morning Star (1860) carried metal engravings and engraved embellishments at the beginning of each chapter justifying and glorifying Christ’s mission. Long, “Cameras Never Lie.” [↩]
- Mackenzie, Propaganda and Empire. [↩]
- Guerra, interview by Guillen, Cineaste. [↩]
- Jackson, Warren, “Indigenous Movements in Latin America” [↩]
- In an interview Guerra told ScreenPrism, “It’s a myth of the Machiguenga people in Peru. When I read about it, I was struck by it because at the same time I was doing some research on German culture of the time. So at first I saw it as a reference, as a dialogue with the German idea of the doppelganger, which is essentially almost the same [myth] in the German culture. But then as I went deeper into this myth, I realized it was something that was maybe on old Amazonian myth that could speak to modern men…” McCullough, “Ask the Director.” [↩]
- Eileraas, “Photography, Ownership and Feminist Resistance.” [↩]
- Dolmatoff, “Cosmology as Ecological Analysis.” [↩]