As the lights in the cinema went down and the opening scene of Ciro Guerra’s 2015 film The Embrace of the Serpent began to flicker on the screen, I was primed to be blown away. The film, based loosely on the field experiences of legendary Amazon explorers Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Schultes, and shot on location in the Colombian Amazon with indigenous actors, was being hailed as visionary. Within the first few seconds my already high expectations of ethnographic authenticity were already surpassed. In the opening sequence, the protagonist Karamakate, whose youthful self is played by Cubeo indigenous actor Nibio Torres, brandishes a long, slender spear that buzzes like a rattle snake when shaken. As a researcher and museum curator who has worked in adjacent regions of the northwest Brazilian Amazon, I have seen identical ceremonial rattle-spears in ethnographic collections and heard them deployed in rituals.
|Antonio Bolivar, the Ocaina indigenous actor who played the elder version of solitary shaman Karamakate in the film, died at the end of May from coronavirus in the jungle town of Leticia, Colombia.|
Cinematic representations of the Amazon have a long and dismal history of exoticism, sensationalism and pure fantasy, from The Emerald Forest to Medicine Man to Anaconda. At last, a popular feature film that represents Amazonian peoples accurately! And yet instants later these admittedly high hopes were dashed. When the canoe containing the German explorer “Theo” (Koch-Grünberg’s pseudonym in the movie) gets closer to the bank, Karamakate pops off the spear’s rattle-tip to reveal a blowgun which he aims menacingly at the intruder. Though indigenous peoples of the Vaupes region indeed use blowguns with curare-tipped darts for hunting, I am not aware of any culture that combines these two pieces of material into a single, interchangeable multi-purpose weapon. “Sssssss”, began the hissing sound, not of a serpent but of my rapidly deflating enchantment...
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