#OscarsSoWhite controversy ignores foreign language films

Ana Luisa González
Andres Barrientos / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

The #OscarsSoWhite controversy has sparked an important debate about the lack of diversity among this year's Academy Award-nominated films. But it's mostly a Hollywoodcentric controversy that has focused almost exclusively on the box office blockbusters that star the big-money actors who faces grace the covers of checkout lane magazines each week.

If you take a step outside the Hollywood bubble, there’s a whole range of diversity found in other Oscar-nominated films—it’s just over in the categories of foreign language films and documentaries.


Embrace of the Serpent is a perfect example. The Colombian-made film is nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film category, and is a celebration of the diversity found in South America’s Amazon jungle. Yet it’s never mentioned in the #OscarsSoWhite debate.

“What we need is for the debate to not only be focused on the main acting categories but to take a wider look at the Academy and the nominees,” says Ciro Guerra, the film’s Colombian director.

Embrace of the Serpent is a complex tale of an outsider who enters the Amazon
Andrés Córdoba / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

Guerra notes that this year's best foreign film category features several incredibly diverse productions, such as Mustang, which stars Turkish actresses who tell the story of five sisters in a provincial town on the edge of the Black Sea, and Theeb, a film that explores a story through the eyes of a Bedouin child from the Middle East.


Embrace of the Serpent, Guerra’s third film, explores some of the diversity of the northwest Amazon, on the border of Brazil, Peru and Colombia.

“There are more than 400 different indigenous peoples in the Amazon speaking over 300 different languages. Each one of them is the result of millennia of knowledge coming together, and each one of them has its own cosmogony, its own ideology and their own way of understanding the world,” Guerra told Fusion.

The film, which features five different indigenous languages (Cubeo, Huitoto, Ticuna, Guarano and Ocaina) takes viewers on a river journey in which Karamakate, a shaman played by Antonio Bolívar and Nilbio Torres, guides a German ethnologist and an American botanist on a mission to find yakruna, a hallucinogenic plant with healing powers.


Embrace of the Serpent has already collected multiple awards at film festivals around the world, such as at Cannes, Odessa, San Sebastian, and Sundance, and just won the audience award for best film supported by the Hubert Bals Fund at Rotterdam.

Regardless of whether it takes home the Oscar, Embrace of the Serpent demands to be seen. It’s a two-hour, black-and-white dream with no temporal hierarchies. It’s a jungle river odyssey on Alto Río Negro and a powerful reminder of indigenous massacres at the hands of rubber merchants during the late 19th Century.


Yet the film makes no attempt to explain the intricacies of colonization, the era of rubber exploitation, or the cultural devastation of the Colombian Amazon. Instead, it offers a complex glimpse of a unique indigenous cosmovision.

It’s also one of only a few films to ever be shot in the Colombian Amazon.

“It's important to point out that the film is not the Amazon. The Amazon is a very vast and diverse place and it doesn't fit into one movie, it doesn't fit into 10,000 movies,” Guerra says.


The previous films shot in the Amazon were in early 1980s: Kápax del Amazonas, which is sort of an adaptation of the Tarzan story; and Amazon for Two Adventurers, an Italian-Colombian comedy set in the jungle.

Colombian filmmakers, however, have avoided the Amazon, mostly because the country’s armed conflict made the jungle a very dangerous place to shoot a movie. Also the Amazon is extremely remote, which makes the logistics of shooting a film challenging.

Embrace of the Serpent takes viewers deep inside the Amazon
Andrés Córdoba / Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

“It is very difficult to get in there and bring equipment,” says Guerra. “You don’t have many resources for filmmaking.”


Embrace of the Serpent is part of a new wave of Colombian cinema that explores new narratives outside of the better-known narco-films that dominate the mainstream of the country’s cinema.

Guerra says this generation of Colombian filmmakers— a roster that includes Óscar Ruiz Navia, Franco Lolli, Jorge Navas and Jorge Forero —is taking on the challenge of looking “deeper into the Colombian soul” and making original cinema focusing on “stories that are never heard in other media.”


Ana Luisa González writes about Latino arts and culture and also makes documentaries.

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