When Ciro Guerra speaks about Embrace of the Serpant, you can hear the magic happen

Normally when people say things like "I questioned every aspect of my existence", it sounds like they're selling something. But Guerra on the BBC World Service was different.

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To an interview (13 February, 7.30pm) with Ciro Guerra, the young Colombian director of Embrace of the Serpent, the first feature shot in the Amazon rainforest in more than 30 years and Colombia’s first ever Oscar-nominated movie. “A very Western script became a very Amazonian film,” Guerra explained. Apparently the various tribes he encountered keenly translated and reworked his story (there are nine languages spoken in the 125 minutes of the film), which follows a German ethnologist and an American biologist travelling through the Amazon in the 20th century to look for a flower alleged to have healing properties. Guerra spoke about seeing a dragonfly “the size of half an arm, unlike any insect I had ever seen – like something out of Avatar”, and head-shakingly recalled how the crew would down tools and take photographs of things time and again, filming halted.

Perhaps this is an unavoidable hazard; it reminded me of a phrase in John Hemming’s book Naturalists in Paradise, published last year, about English naturalists in the Amazon 150 years ago. “A pity he failed to write more about these splendid indigenous peoples,” grieves Hemming of the horticultural explorer Richard Spruce, but “he was overcome by the wealth of botanical marvels that surrounded him”. The way Guerra talked here about his long moments of distraction, of stunned seduction (“I saw a spider and on its back was the face of a human”) is reflected throughout his marvellous movie. You must see it, if only for the scene where a jaguar fights with a snake, thankfully captured on camera, but with a strange combination of documentary-style realism and hypnagogic mysticism.

I had never heard Guerra’s voice before, and was struck by how it altered as the interview went on – the brain beginning to register images and depths of feeling that might have been slumbering for a while since moving on to other projects. None of it sounded like a pitch. “I questioned every aspect of my existence,” he concluded: the sort of thing you hear a great deal, thuddingly, in awards season. Only, this wasn’t someone editorialising, standing apart and selling: the magic was happening to him all over again. Not something you hear every day.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming

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