In 'Birds Of Passage,' A New Lens On The Narcotrafficking Drama

Feb 18, 2019
Originally published on February 19, 2019 8:12 am

In a hypnotic opening dance between two would-be lovers, the new film Birds of Passage immediately establishes that it is in no way a typical Colombian drug-war epic.

A young woman named Zaida, wearing a billowing red dress that stretches to resemble wings, is engaged in an elaborate courtship ritual with a suitor named Rapayet. As a crowd looks on in a tiny village, they charge toward each other, exchanging glances, dancing a sort of ballet. The scene is set against a vast, arid landscape in one of the most remote regions of northern Colombia, and among one of its most rarely seen indigenous communities known as the Wayúu.

Film critic Monica Castillo says that U.S. films depicting Colombia's devastating drug war tend to focus on the high-stakes world of narcotrafficking — on powerful gangsters like Pablo Escobar. These films and television series themselves traffic in sex, drugs and tropical heat. It is precisely this kind of gangster movie that Oscar-nominated filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego wanted to subvert.

Birds of Passage is set in and told from the perspective of the deeply insular and traditional Wayúu community of Colombia's La Guajira region. Culture writer and film critic Manuel Betancourt, who was raised in Bogotá, says their world is so remote that it is as unfamiliar to most Colombians as it is to an international audience.

"They are a very specific group ... that really were never colonized by the Spanish, and that's different from many of the other indigenous communities that are alive with us in Colombia," Betancourt says. "The Wayúu maintained a level of insularity that really protected all those traditions. ... You're really seeing a community intact that has not been tainted, and the movie tracks when they're coming to terms with the modernity that's encroaching around them, and the history that's about to explode."

For filmmakers Guerra and Gallego, the drug war started a process that devastated the fragile cultures of indigenous communities. The booming demand for marijuana created a culture defined by greed and individual success, which fundamentally challenged the values and spiritual beliefs of tight-knit communities like the Wayúu.

In the film, Rapayet is desperate to raise money for the dowry to marry Zaida, and begins helping a friend supply American Peace Corps volunteers with marijuana. It grows into a booming family business — soon, there are planes flying in and out of the desert filled with drugs.

Amid the mushrooming riches, it is the women in the film who sense that something is wrong. The Wayúu are a matrilineal society, and in dream sequences and natural omens, only the women foretell the impending chaos.

One of the key omens are the birds of the film's title, which often appear on screen, silently walking through a room or landing on a branch in hypnotic, unexplained moments.

"The Wayúu have a strong relationship with birds and what they symbolize," Gallego says. "When a certain bird appears, it's bringing news, certain omens. They're the messengers of what's to come. ... We wanted to speak also to the arrival of the planes, because they are birds made of metal ... and also, in the '50s in Colombia, pajaros [birds] were used to refer to people with guns, people who brought violence with them."

The film might be described as a blend of a classical Greek tragedy of a family torn apart and a Latin American magical realist novel. Guerra and Gallego say the great master of Colombian literature, Gabriel García Márquez, was deeply influenced by Wayúu traditions — and that they are indebted to his legacy.

"When we started working on this world, we realized that the code of magical realism — and specifically of the world of One Hundred Years of Solitude — was written in the 'key' of Wayúu, because García Márquez was educated by Wayúu," Gallego says.

The novel became a guiding light to the filmmakers. They say that García Márquez was wrestling with many of the same questions about cultural identity and progress.

"[One Hundred Years of Solitude] also has to do with the arrival of modernity, and the arrival of the 20th century and all its transformations, in a place that, in some ways, is outside the laws of the modern world," Guerra says. "We thought the inspiration that surges through the novel was fitting for the story we wanted to tell."

Birds of Passage premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and was Colombia's official entry to this year's Oscars. Guerra and Gallego's previous film Embrace of the Serpent, which Guerra directed and Gallego produced, was also set in one of Colombia's indigenous communities (this one deep in the Amazon jungle). It was a commercial and critical success, and was one of the nominees for the best foreign language Oscar.

The filmmakers are drawn to threatened traditions, but they are themselves at the forefront of a Latin American new wave. Film critic Manuel Betancourt says theirs is a deliberate project to widen the lens of Latin American cinema to indigenous voices.

"It's a choice to go to the Amazon or La Guajira, wanting to move away from the urban centers that dominate Latin American and Colombian cinema in general," Betancourt says. "It speaks to the kind of cinema they want to create, but also to the jobs they want to create for different communities, the types of stories they want to offer the world ... it seems very intentional and I love that about their work."

For Birds of Passage, Gallego says 30 percent of the crew came from the Wayúu community: "They were constantly correcting us on how we represented them appropriately," she says. It was always welcome, she says, because the collaboration as equal partners was key to avoiding the traditional colonial gaze of the outsider looking in.

"When we talk about cinema about the indigenous community ... we're often thinking about a type of distant ethnographic approximation, one that doesn't identify with the community, but rather, exotifies it," Guerra says. "For us what's been interesting with these last films was getting close to these communities and telling the story from within ... generating relatability and emotion in a way that is interesting for an audience that isn't used to seeing these kinds of communities on the big screen. They can identify with them, they can be moved with them. And the cinema has that power to generate that empathy — that connection."

Tom Cole edited this story for broadcast.

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The decadeslong drug war in Colombia has fueled a whole genre of movies and TV shows. Think men with guns wearing crisp suits in the tropical heat, like in the Netflix series "Narcos." A new film from Colombia shows another version of that story. It's called "Birds Of Passage." NPR's Bilal Qureshi has more.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Film critic Monica Castillo says movies about Colombian drug cartels may be popular, but they have serious blind spots.

MONICA CASTILLO: U.S. dramas or productions keep repeating the same narrative of narcos as gangsters, and look how cool they are and how much power and money and wealth - you know, the whole sort of fascination with Pablo Escobar, for instance. But there is a real cost to a lot of that violence.

QURESHI: In this drug war movie, the cost is cultural.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, foreign language spoken).

QURESHI: "Birds Of Passage" opens in 1968. A young woman dressed in a billowing red dress that looks like wings dances with a suitor in an elaborate courtship ritual.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, foreign language spoken).

QURESHI: This is the world of the indigenous Wayuu people. Manuel Betancourt is a Colombian culture writer and says the Wayuu are rarely seen on-screen.

MANUEL BETANCOURT: They are a very specific group that, really, were never colonized by the Spanish. They have a very particular relationship with the Colombian government in that they sort of operate under their own rules and justice. So even just seeing that in the film, as a Colombian, it's like seeing your country in a brand-new way.

QURESHI: The directors of "Birds Of Passage" are Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra.

CIRO GUERRA: (Through interpreter) When we talk about cinema about the Indigenous community, we're often thinking about distant ethnographic approximations that exoticize. We wanted to make something that brings us close to them and lets us tell the story from within.

QURESHI: The filmmakers immerse viewers in one Wayuu family that is ripped apart by the arrival of the marijuana trade. It's the women who can sense the chaos to come.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, foreign language spoken).

QURESHI: Filmmaker Cristina Gallego explains that the Wayuu are a matrilineal society, and the women see the omens.

CRISTINA GALLEGO: (Through interpreter) Our Indigenous communities have a strong connection with myth, with magic, with the supernatural, but really, it's with the manifestation of nature. When nature speaks, what does it want to say?

QURESHI: In the film, it says that money and greed will destroy the traditional culture. The Wayuu also inspired Colombia's most famous novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and his iconic magic realism. Garcia Marquez's grandmother was of Wayuu descent. And filmmaker Ciro Guerra says the writer's most famous novel was a guiding force.

GUERRA: (Through interpreter) For us, it was a fountain of inspiration because that's really what a novel like "One Hundred Years Of Solitude" is about. It's about the arrival of modernity and the arrival of the 20th century and all the things it brought to a place that was, in some ways, outside the laws of the modern world.


QURESHI: On-screen, the magic realism translates into dream sequences - widescreen images of storm clouds gathering that foreshadow the looming tragedy.


QURESHI: Culture writer Manuel Betancourt says the influence of the novelist is palpable in the finished film.

BETANCOURT: It's his magical realism at its most elemental. And it lends the movie a more ethereal aspect.

QURESHI: There's perhaps nothing more ethereal than the birds of the title, which appear in hypnotic sequences on-screen, walking silently through a room, as filmmaker Cristina Gallego explains.


GALLEGO: (Through interpreter) The Wayuu have a strong relationship with birds and what they symbolize. When a certain bird appears, they're the messengers of what's to come. We wanted to speak to that.

We wanted to speak, also, to the arrival of the planes because they are birds made of metal. In the '50s in Colombia, pajaros - birds - was used to refer to people with guns, people who brought violence with them.

QURESHI: The planes land and take off with the marijuana as the Wayuu clans descend into war.


QURESHI: To achieve the cultural specificity of the movie, the filmmakers hired members of the community.

GALLEGO: (Through interpreter) Thirty percent of the people who worked on this film were Wayuu, and they were constantly correcting us on how we represented them.

QURESHI: Despite their old world subjects, filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego are at the forefront of a Latin American new wave. Their previous collaboration, "Embrace Of The Serpent," was nominated for an Oscar, and "Birds Of Passage" was Colombia's official entry to this year's Oscars. Gallego and Guerra say they see cinema as a way of continuing the role of storytelling in their country.

GUERRA: (Through interpreter) For the Wayuu and for indigenous communities, what's important is that their stories are known and that they're kept alive. They do that through song and through an oral tradition. And they want us to learn their lessons so that we don't repeat their mistakes.

QURESHI: The filmmakers say cinema is their way of bringing those ancient lessons to a new generation and to those accustomed to drug war cliches. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.