I don’t think any other film has laid bare the bones of colonialism in quite the same manner as Embrace of the Serpent. Rather than simply stating colonialism is bad, it moves towards explaining what was lost for both cultures.
What Embrace of the Serpent shows is that all cultures have their own myths of understanding the world, that derive firstly from the environment/landscape around them and later the technologies that lever the balance of power away from this nature towards man. Although western culture is at the top of the hierarchy, it has emerged to this point due to its technological monopoly on violence. It subjugates the body first and the mind later.
The white men in this film, Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes both travel to the Amazonian rainforest in search for the extremely rare yakruna. Both men are men of science. Both men carry all their knowledge in books, trudging through the Amazonian rainforest with heavy suitcases filled to the brim with notes, orienteering utensils, encyclopaedias etc. The American, Richard Evans Schultes, states at one point in the film that he is a man of science and his faith is in its methods. The white man, or so he believes, has no myths.
The director Ciro Guerra presents an extremely beautiful picture layered with competing worldviews, with the various myths that enrapture the individual and give them a sense of themselves in this world. The film is set solely in the Amazonian rainforest and by being in its world, the rational scientific basis of the explorer’s world view is set against the primitive mythological mythos of Karamakate, the last remaining Shaman of his tribe. Karamakate, the protaganist of the film is shown as both a young man and an older man. As a young man he retains all the confidence of a shaman, enthusiastic with the knowledge of the rainforest, of its temperament, its ways, and his rituals are closely intertwined with its flora and its fauna. As an older man, this knowledge is lost but more of that later.
The yakruna plant for Karamakate is a somewhat divine plant for his tribe, a plant that seems central to important rituals and due to its hallucinogenic properties seems to grant those that consume it an awareness of themselves and their relation to the world. In a later scene it seems to imply a death of the individual self but again more of that later. Yet for the white explorers, this plant has an altogether different value. For Theodor, the sick German ethnographer, it is the only means of his survival. For the American botanist Richard, the plant has the properties to purify rubber, cutting out costs in the purification process and ultimately being of significant value in the American war effort in WWII. With this object alone (the yakruna plant), we are shown how the value of the object is determined by the outlook of each man.
The younger Karamakate occupies a sort of dream world, as if caught between the mythological realm where he and his people have occupied for countless generations, one in which the landscape has stories, a myriad of stories to which he states that the rock, the flower, the water all of which speak to him. He is, to use the bastardized term, ‘at one with nature’. The shaman is the ritual gatekeeper of the border between secular time and mythological time, the time where every object becomes immanent. The shaman, through rituals, can open the gates of secular time into this immanent mythological time. The white men live in secular time, where science has emptied every object of this immanent quality to a point that the object has only a transient, utilitarian value. For the pre-modern man, the world was immanent, not in a catholic sense in which everything was a symbol of God’s divinity so that one was not really living in this world but living the whole of their life in a metaphor for the next life, but that this life had a heightened sense of infinity, of being part of the cycles of nature. When we meet the older Karamakate, he declares ‘I’m a chullachaqui’, meaning something along the lines of him being a shell, of him being an empty copy of himself. Where devoid of his memory, of his tribes’ ancient rituals and knowledges, he no longer has the means to identify with the landscape that he occupies. The older Karamakate has entered modernity. He may still live in the rainforest but the rainforest no longer sings back to him, it no longer guides him. Its secrets remain outside his grasp when once he was apart of it.
This entry into modernity can never be seamless. The entry into modernity is traumatic. The trauma can last generations. In the Jesuit missionary founded along the banks of the Amazon, we the coercion placed on the orphaned indigenous children, their parents slaughtered by rubber bandits, and now left in the care of the Jesuits, are brought up in the most repressive and austere catholicism. When Karamakate uses a small window of opportunity to teach a group of children some of the old tribal rituals by showing how a nearby flower can be ground down into a medicine, we are again being presented with a mythos that sits alongside the ecology of his environment. The children sit around fascinated in the presence of this teacher that teaches in the real, unlike the jesuit who will later whip them, who teaches them that these customs displeases god and will see them rejected from the afterlife. The divergence of the catholic religion which has roots in the judaic mythologies of the Middle East and the political power of Ancient Rome, with the jungle, whose mythologies and social structures have nothing in common with this religion, is rendered horrifically in a later scene. Thirty years later, after the indigenous children have been abandoned due to the jesuit priest’s death at the hands of Theodor’s travelling companion, a kind of Lord of the Flies situation has occurred, where the children, have grown up abandoned in the jungle with only a catholic mythos that has become bastardized by its inherent lack of educational value in the jungle. As Karamakate describes it, it is the worst of both worlds.
Throughout the film there is this constant tension between worlds. What Embrace of the Serpent deftly portrays, outside of its indictment of the barbarity of the colonists, their thirst for resources and their willingness to inflict a genocide on a whole people for material benefit, is the knowledge and the mythologies that were and still are being killed off by western principles but would have a value in the modern world if only we would listen to them. For example, the mythos of science’s rationality is completely turned on its head throughout the film as its shown through a subjugation that involves literally making an object of everything and it having the pomposity of declaring itself the objective viewpoint. The director stated that during the writing of the film, his approach to the picture changed as he realised he was approaching the film through facts.
“I started with a script that was very concerned with scientific fact, being true to history, and it was, with all things, very clear. Everyday was marked, every location was set, and all the stories were just tremendously clear. But as I started sharing it with the indigenous peoples and discussing it with them, I realized this was doing something of a disservice, that this was not the way the script needed to work. So, it became more and more infused with Amazonian storytelling, with their myths, and then I realized it was no longer important to be accurate. I came to understand that imagination and dreams were as important to them as any fact.”
Historical testament is after all only a record written by the white man and often recorded only as an empirical pursuit, for this knowledge to be used is a testement and a path to the resources that existed in the unknown world. Therefore in Guerra’s veering away from fact, the director is much more loyal to the Amazonians worldview, who were not just expelled from their lands but from their own identities, a much more tragic occurrence. In directing this picture in black and white and playing with the light and patterns (the patterns of the rivers, the patterns of the trees), there is an artistic rendering going on of the visual aspect of this mythological time, a time that has never been anchored to the present moment but to the flux of every moment. Time is never linear in this mythological time but constantly overlapping as cause and effect, effect and cause. The intertwining of the two stories concurrently despite their time difference points again to this circular notion of time. Such a style gives this film its transportative, medative like quality and also takes us out of ‘western time’, something I want to explore more fully in a different blog post. For ‘western time’ lives in the perpetual present, its history begins in the moment it broke from nature, The Fall, and in the break from nature’s circuity, man had something to say of itself in being outside of it. Western time despite prattling on about the future and the past an awful lot has only concern for the non concrete present. Its actions show this, as we can see in the colonial actions and the destruction it has wielded on the rainforest. Karamakate as a shaman and existing outside of western time can see both the cause and effect of the present moment, something is lacking in the perspective of the colonialists.
Being alienated outside of this ‘mythological time’ is to leave one a chullachaqui, a mirror copy of oneself but lacking the memories and their interaction with a place that gives a person their identity. When the younger Karamakate sees a photo of himself for the first time, he asks ‘is that my chullachaqui?’ To which the German ethnographer replies ‘no, this is but a memory, an image of you.’ To which Karamakate replies “and will people outside of here see this?” To which the explorer replies “yes, I will show them”. It is clear the shaman is slightly bemused by this exchange and also slightly worried, as if the white man is taking ownership of a portion of his soul.
The image as a representation of a moment would seem to be a foreign conception to an Amazonian tribe yet in the mythos of the tribe they have just the word for it. Chullachaqui. As remarked by a number of anthropologists, many primitive tribes react strongly to photographs of themselves, as if their representation on paper, has rested some part of their subjectivity from them. When the younger Karamakate asks if he can have the photograph, he is claiming ownership of his ‘soul’, of his representation. Yet what is clear from western experience is that photos never belong to the subject. The biggest fear of the older protagonist is that he is a challachaqui. To live in this world without a relationship to mother nature is thought to be an empty existence, an existence of madness and lunacy, an existence where man’s understanding himself is always mediated through the technological tools he uses to navigate around him at the expense of the intimacy of a relationship with the world.
If the photograph is a moment of memory, then in contemporary life, we communicate through virtual versions of ourselves, virtual memories that we no longer have any authority over, but pass over the authority of our representation to another. In this process, do we too become a chullachaqui, or have we already become such?
Derrida has a word for this condition – ‘hauntology’; an ontology based on past representations that disrupt the immediacy of the present. In Embrace of the Serpent, Karamakate recognizes himself as a ghost, that the totality that once existed between himself, his tribe, and the Amazonion rainforest has been completely severed and in this severance, time has come undone. Now in Karamakate’s dispossession, even the illiterate tribes of the rainforest are haunted by the feeling of loss defining their present identity. This trauma, this post-colonial trauma has never been overturned in history, as to exist means to exist within the colonist’s game and the price to pay is memory, the willed forgetting of the violence and the sabotage to one’s kin and culture and environment must be achieved in order to become a (however unwillingly) participant in the colonists’ ball game. Karamakate recognises the slave mentality instinctively in the clothes worn by Theodor’s indigenous travelling companion. One can only exist in wearing the clothes of the master. One can only exist in thinking along the same lines of the master. one can only exist of one is content to be a slave.
Towards the end of the film, Karamakate shows his will to life, his will to die as he is. Not as a ‘chullachaqui’ but as an example of life radiating amongst a myriad of slaves, to show a path to some greater understanding where the here and now exists of and for itself rather than as a nature to be transformed for some utilitarian purpose. But for it to be a means of conquering the self, to realise that we are part of its mechanisms and not above it. It is the damage done by an alienating western philosophical outlook that deems man above nature that has resulted in its destruction. The onslaught of individualism has made chullachaquis of us all.