Thursday, June 9, 2016

Karl Mathiesen - Embrace of the Serpent star: 'My tribe is nearly extinct'

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.

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.”

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.”... 
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