By Jake Watt
29th September 2019

A vast part of the modern Colombian culture is inadvertently associated with the narcobusiness. Tales of Colombian narco-trafficking on film or television tend to focus on either the bloody rivalry between the cartels or the so-called war on drugs between the U.S. and the cartels. Most of the films that touch on this topic turn into boilerplate or worse (see the recent ‘Rambo: Last Blood’), but co-directors Ciro Guerra (‘Embrace of the Serpent‘) and Cristina Gallego’s ‘Birds of Passage’ takes a raw look at Colombian history and examines the impact of the drug trade on their country’s indigenous culture.

The indigenous Wayúu people of Colombia are farmers living in isolated communities. For centuries, they have refused to adjust to the world’s way of living and remain ardent advocates of tradition over development. In the late 1960s, a Wayúu man named Rapayet (Jose Acosta) and his uncle Peregrino arrives at a small village in La Guajira, the northernmost tip of Colombia, to offer a dowry of a necklace for the beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes). She emerges from her tent, offering a blanket she has made to an elder who accepts it and proclaims a celebration. This leads to one of the most memorable scenes in the movie: Rapayet and Zaida dancing the Yonna, a traditional dance where Zaida extends the sleeves of her flowing red dress so they look like wings and swoops around Rapayet like a bird of prey. Upon completion of the dance, Rapayet firmly tells her, “You are my woman.”


Later, while sitting in a bar, Rapayet hears about some young Americans working in the Peace Corps who are looking for a bit of weed to smoke. Sensing an opportunity, he and his non-Wayúu friend Moisés (Jhon Narvaez) visit his cousin Anibal (Juan Bautista Martinez), who owns a plantation that produces marijuana (which the locals use as an ointment). The two men begin selling the marijuana crops to American smugglers, with the support of matriarch and spiritual healer Ursula (Carmina Martinez). As they count their money and watch the hippies partying and smoking dope, Moises remarks: “Weed is the world’s happiness.”

It’s the beginning of the trade which eventually brings tragedy to the people of Wayúu. In the space of a few decades, donkeys turn into luxury vehicles and tents are upgraded to mansions that sit in the middle of the barren desert land like some kind of art project. By the 1970s, Rapayet and his clan are wealthy and well-armed. But so are other clans. “If there’s family, there’s respect. If there’s respect, there’s honour. If there’s honour, there’s word. If there’s word, there’s peace,” we’re informed early on, but drug money divides family into rival gangs, and turns Zaida’s kid brother Leonidas (Greider Meza) into a sadistic gangster in the ‘Scarface’ mould. Hasty actions trigger an escalating ripple of devasting violence.

There’s a dark joke running all the way through ‘The Godfather, Part II’: this family, the Corleones, that had always put family above all else is now a family destroying itself from the inside. Aside from a similar emphasis on family, there are plenty of other comparisons to be made to Francis Ford Coppola’s crime saga - specifically the sections of ‘The Godfather’ set in Sicily, another pastoral paradise where reveries are brutally cut down. Like Vito and Michael Corleone, Rapayet is a dutiful family man turned steely-eyed gangster. Like Sonny, Leonidas is a self-destructive hothead. Like Fredo, Moisés is an untrustworthy hedonist with a dubious fashion sense.

Neo-capitalism enters the Wayúu‘s Garden of Eden like a snake riding an atomic bomb, ‘Dr. Strangelove’ style.

Co-directors Gallego and Guerra, working with a story based on historical research, use the form of a religious fable, with the film divided into five chapters ("cantos"): Wild Grass, The Graves, Prosperity, The War and Limbo. The priestesses hurl curses, rituals dominate some scenes and the presence of the spirit world, expressed in the film's shots of the desert and forest, is never far. At its heart, this is a morality tale about greed entering a culture which previously had nothing to fight over. Neo-capitalism enters the Wayúu‘s Garden of Eden like a snake riding an atomic bomb, ‘Dr. Strangelove’ style.

Businessman Rapayet and shaman Ursula represent the push-pull forces at work - new and old, the material and the spiritual. Throughout the film Ursula is seen as an oracle-like figure: she interprets Zaida’s dream about her grandmother as a death omen and she accurately predict the ill fortune. The Wayúu value material goods - the desire to find a dowry for a bride is a catalyst for the story - and admire those skilled in trading and fighting, traits that have helped the ethnic minority survive on the margins of Colombia. The story poetically blends these ideas with the bloody and often lurid tale of a kingpin's rise to power, turning the ascetic first half of the film into a violence-driven spectacle (ala ‘Traffic’, ‘Sicario’, ‘Escobar: Paradise Lost’, etc) - a game of sending messengers and spraying bullets.

Stunningly shot by cinematographer David Gallego, ‘Birds of Passage’ features panoramic views of deserts, serpentine trails of donkeys carrying sacks of freshly-dried weed, and a few Jodorowsky-esque dream sequences. Colours feature prominently, with rich reds for the wedding and blues for a funeral service. The depth of field, the patience of the camera, the particular colour palette, and the diegetic lighting all contribute to the aesthetic. A dichotomy in this visual narrative is what really charms in the first half of the film. It’s more of a documentary than a scripted story.

‘Birds of Passage’ feels like a gangster epic anchored by a people seeing their world view slowly slipping from their sight. It manages to make a narco narrative feel new and visually stunning on a broad dreamlike canvas, taking a creaky old Hollywood genre and moulding it into something altogether more entrancing.

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