Buried beneath the special effects, explosions, glitz and gowns of next month’s Academy Awards will be a moody black-and-white drama whose characters speak nine different languages.
In many ways Embrace of the Serpent is an exotic creature — part art film, part mystery, part historical travelogue — that explores long-neglected nooks of the Amazon. And in Colombia’s film industry, it’s even more of a rarity: It’s the only film to ever be nominated for an Oscar.
This South American nation has made a name for itself in almost every art form, from literature (Gabriel García Márquez) to painting (Fernando Botero) to popular music (Juanes, Shakira and Carlos Vives). But the picturesque country has rarely been a standout at the picture show.
That, however, is beginning to change. In 2003, Colombia revamped its film laws to provide tax breaks and other production incentives. While in 2004 there were just nine movies made in the country, last year there were 36 — a national record.
“Colombian cinema is in the midst of one of its best streaks ever,” said Adelfa Martínez, the national director of cinematography at the Ministry of Culture. “We’re finally reaping the rewards of all our work.”
The film commission put 2.3 billion pesos (about $1 million at the time) into Embrace of the Serpent through grants and tax rebates.
And it’s not alone. The 2015 film Land and Shade won the prestigious Caméra d’Or at Cannes. And the short film Leidi won the Palme d’Or, Cannes’ highest honor, in 2014. On Saturday, Between Sea and Land won the Audience Award at Sundance in the world cinema drama category.
And then there’s the production that might not be sweeping awards but is seizing eyeballs around the world: Netflix’s Narcos. The series, which tracks the rise of Medellin drug lord Pablo Escobar and the DEA agents chasing him, has become a global hit.
While it’s produced by Netflix and Gaumont International Television, it’s being shot here, and the Colombian firm Dynamo is providing production services — meaning that most of the technical hands are local.
“To finally have a movie in the Oscars means that we’re making international-level films and that’s important,” said Andres Calderon, the CEO of Dynamo. “By the same token, to have made a show like Narcos, which has broken down all sorts of barriers and is considered one of the most important series of 2015, is incredibly important.”
Narcos sends two powerful signals, Calderon said. First, it shows the industry that Colombia has the technical talent to produce world-class entertainment. Secondly, it speaks volumes about the country itself.
While Narcos highlights Colombia’s violent past, it’s being filmed on location in neighborhoods and cities that were once no-go zones for film crews.
“That’s the best message,” Calderon said. “The country is doing so well that we can finally shoot our own stories here.”
Hollywood has long been enthralled with the Colombian story, steeped in exoticism, drugs and Marxist guerrillas. But the country’s bad reputation meant that few dared to shoot here.
Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia (2009) was filmed in Puerto Rico, Delta Force Two: The Colombian Connection (1990) was filmed in Tennessee and the Philippines; and Blow (2001) and Romancing the Stone (1984) were filmed in Mexico.
A number of factors, however, mean that U.S. viewers will be seeing more of this nation on the silver screen.
For starters, the security situation has improved dramatically. In addition, since 2013, the government has been providing incentives to international productions, including a 40 percent rebate on all local salaries and 20 percent rebates on logistical costs. Finally, the global oil crisis has pummeled Colombia, depreciating its currency by more than 60 percent versus the dollar over the last two years — making it a cheap shooting location.
“The [incentive] law turned us into one of the most seductive places for shooting,” Martínez said. “We already had it all including excellent locations — in Colombia, you can move from jungle to hills to sea to snow-capped mountain very quickly.”
Since the law went into effect, 16 international productions have benefited from it. And at least seven international film productions will be shooting in Colombia this year, including the second season of Narcos.
The change is already being seen at the cineplex.
When Hollywood set out to tell the story of Chilean miners who in 2010 were trapped underground for 69 days, they shot it in Colombia. The 33, starring Antonio Banderas, was released in 2015 to lukewarm reviews.
The Tom Cruise vehicle Mena, based on the life of Barry Seal, a U.S. drug trafficker who turned DEA informant in the 1980s, was shot on location in and around Medellin last year and is scheduled to be released in 2017.
Despite the gains, Colombia remains a regional laggard in the film industry. Places like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico put out more than 120 movies a year. The United States, by unfair comparison, put out 818 movies in 2014 compared to Colombia’s 28.
And local filmmakers complain about the lack of support from commercial movie theaters and even the national public. Of the approximately 60 million Colombian movie viewers in 2015, 80 percent went to see international blockbusters while the remaining 20 percent were divided between international films, independent productions and Colombian movies.
Part of the problem is exposure, said Culture Minister Mariana Garcés. While Colombia’s darling Embrace of the Serpent was shown on only 26 screens when it was first released, Fast and Furious 7 was in more than 400 theaters.
“The biggest challenge for Colombia is distribution — that Colombian movies be put on enough screens for enough time so that Colombians can actually watch them,” she said. Before it got the Oscar nod and was re-released, Embrace of the Serpent was seen by only 120,000 Colombians.
Some countries (including Venezuela) have tried to solve that problem by forcing theaters to show national movies through quotas, but that strategy doesn’t work, Garcés said. Instead, Colombia is toying with the idea of creating a voucher system that might give stellar students and other target audiences discounts on national products.
Cristina Gallego, producer of Embrace of the Serpent, said getting the project financed was difficult even though she and director Ciro Guerra had a strong track record, including the critically acclaimed movie The Wind Journeys (2009).
Serpent is based on the diaries of Theodor Koch-Grunberg, a German adventurer, and Richard Evans Schultes, an American biologist, who explored the Amazon separately in the 19th and 20th centuries. It tells the story of lost and dying indigenous cultures and is shot in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Latin, Catalan, Cubeo, Wanano, Tikuna and Huitoto.
Gallego said she spent almost four years having the project rejected by financiers in Colombia, the United States and Europe. Ultimately, it was backed by Argentine and Venezuelan funds. The crew filmed on location in the deep Amazon for seven weeks.
Gallego said she’s proud that this uniquely South American movie was financed by South Americans.
“We never expected [an Oscar nod] because this movie has been so hard to make,” she said. “It was a very, very long journey and just the fact that we were able to finish it made us very happy.”
If Colombia does win an Academy Award, it will join Argentina as the only other Latin American country to take home an Oscar for Best Foreign Film (The Official Story (1985) and The Secret in their Eyes (2009)). How that particular cliffhanger ends won’t be resolved until the award ceremony on Feb. 28.