In Oscar-nominated film from Colombia, Amazonian natives – literally – tell the story

Before heading to L.A. and become the first film ever to represent Colombia at the Oscars, Ciro Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent” will likely be the talk of the town in Park City, Utah, where the Sundance Film festival gets underway this weekend.

“I’m very happy that the film has gotten such a good response,” said Guerra, 34, whose adventure drama set on the lush Colombian Amazon jungle was shot entirely black and white.

“It isn’t possible to convey in any sort of film or picture or photograph the true colors of the Amazon and what it means to the indigenous people,” he explained to Fox News Latino.

“They have 50 different words for what we call green. So by taking away that, I was hoping to trigger the viewer's imagination. I can’t represent those colors accurately, but you can imagine them.”

The movie tells a fictional story based on the journals of two real-life explorers who ventured into the jungle 31 years apart. In 1909 and 1940, respectively, German scientist Theodor Koch-Grünberg (Jan Bijvoet) and American Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) solicited indigenous shaman Karamakate’s (Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar Salvador) help in finding the sacred yakurna plant, unleashing a unique clash of cultures that Guerra conveys through a storyline that the natives themselves helped create.

“We really turned this sort of genre on its head and we gave the protagonist to the indigenous peoples,” Guerra said. “The film is told from their point of view and listens to their voice because we made it together with them. They helped us write the script and they had a big involvement, both in front and behind the camera. So that’s what made the film truly special.”

The indigenous people portrayed in Guerra’s film are not professional actors; they are native Amazonians to whom Guerra and his film crew provided acting lessons prior to filming.

“We found that they have strength; they have an oral tradition that they have kept alive for thousands of years, and this oral tradition gives them the ability to truly listen,” said Guerra. “And that’s something that’s hard to find in an actor.”

The film’s success has Colombians in a state of euphoria -- Guerra said President Juan Manuel Santos phoned him personally congratulate him.

To date the movie has won awards in prestigious film festivals in Cannes (Art Cinema Award), Mar de Plata (Golden Astor) and at the Odessa International Film Festival, where it got a special jury mention.

“It’s a big deal here in Colombia,” he said. “It really means a lot to us because people see it as a big recognition of the growth and quality that Colombian cinema has achieved in the last years.”

After its tour at Sundance (Jan. 21-31), “Embrace of the Serpent” is set to be released in U.S. theatres in mid-February.