Nilbio Torres, part of the cast of Oscars-nominated Colombian movie 'El Abrazo de la Serpiente' (Embrace of the Serpent)
Bogota - AFP
Nilbio Torres had never been to the cinema before and had never heard of the Oscars, until he acted in a film that got nominated for one.
The 30-year-old father of four from the Amazon jungle is one of the indigenous Colombian stars of "Embrace of the Serpent," up for the Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars on February 28.
The third film by Colombian director Ciro Guerra, it is based on the true story of an expedition into the Amazon in the early 20th century by a German ethnologist and a US biologist.
But unlike previous tales about European adventures in the South American jungle, this one is told from the viewpoint of the indigenous peoples, who speak in their native languages.
"It was hard to get into character," Torres told AFP, struggling to express himself in Spanish.
"I had to show it like it was real."
Torres, of the Cubeo ethnic group, plays the part of the shaman Karamakate, last survivor of his village, as a young man.
Antonio Bolivar, himself one of the last surviving members of the Uitoto ethnic group, plays the character when he is older. The locals call him Grandpa Antonio.
- Acting lessons -
Nilbio works in the jungle growing yucca and bananas at a plantation he gets to each day by canoe. The hard physical work has given him the kind of body Hollywood actors work on in the gym.
When the film crew came to his part of the jungle, he thought of trying to get a job as an assistant on the shoot to earn some extra cash.
Instead, the filmmakers offered him a role. They sent him to acting classes in the capital Bogota -- the first time he had ever traveled by plane.
He did not know much about films, but the filmmakers discovered he had a knack for memorizing his lines and a strong presence in front of the camera.
Another indigenous actor, Miguel Ramos, 27, plays the part of the German explorer's assistant.
He is glad that the filmmakers chose to use actors speaking the indigenous Tikuna, Uitoto and Cubeo languages.
A lot of people tell me: 'Thank you for representing us. We feel proud of you," he said.
But the film also prompted painful reflections for indigenous people. Their ancestors were massacred by colonial traders who plundered their land for rubber.
"Sometimes I would talk with Grandpa Antonio and we would fall silent because we felt sad to be reliving that history in the film," he said.
"But then you start to reflect that this can allow us to make our lives and communities stronger. This film lets us keep breathing."
- Colombia's 'unknown universe' -
The rubber trade transformed the Amazon, says Ignacio Prieto, an anthropologist who advised the film director.
"There was a massacre of 60,000 Uitotos. Indigenous communities fled to Brazil and Peru," he said.
Many trees were cut down and natives have turned to mining or growing coca leaves for which drug dealers pay well.
Many of them try to shut themselves off from the outside, said Prieto.
Ramos is an exception. He has moved to Bogota and is studying to be a sports teacher.
At the university, people ask him whether indigenous people still wear loincloths.
"That makes me think that a lot of people do not know the Amazon," he said with a smile.
"Embrace of the Serpent" could change that.
"The Amazon is an unknown universe for Colombians," said Prieto.
"Now the country has realized that this place is here and it belongs to them too."