By Ali Moosavi.
Films about drug trafficking in Central and South America have been on our cinema and TV screens almost continuously, from Scarface to Sicario. In recent years, there seems to have been more films and TV series about drug barons in Columbia and Mexico than any other topic; a few films just on the life and times of Pablo Escobar, the TV series Narcos, and El Chapo…the list seems never-ending.
Therefore, yet another movie about drug trafficking in Columbia does not fill one with much enthusiasm for watching it. Is there anything that has not already been covered about drug traffickers? However, the fact that Birds of Passage was produced in Columbia, and was in fact their Oscar entry for 2018, does give one hope for seeing something fresh about this topic. This hope proves to be well founded.
We are told at the start of the movie that is based ion true events which occurred between 1960 and 1980. From the opening shot of the film, we can see that this is a different kettle of fish to the others. Birds of Passage opens with a local Columbian tribal ceremony announcing a girl reaching womanhood. The ceremony includes a circular dance which the girl, Zaida (Natalia Reyes), performs. Rapayet (Jose Acosta), a suitor, joins her in the dance and tells her and he intends to marry her. They both belong to the indigenous Wayuu tribe. However, Zaida’s mother Ursula, who is clearly the patriarch of the family (Carmina Martinez, magnificent in a role very similar to Jacki Weaver’s in Animal Kingdom), requires a sizeable dowry for her daughter, including 50 goats and 20 cows! Well beyond Rapayet’s means. Help arrives in the unlikely shape of US Peace Corps who are spreading the word about the beautiful American capitalism and against the nasty communism! We are in 1968, the Summer of Love, and everybody wants weed. Rapayet has an uncle who grows marijuana and hence the seeds of drug trafficking are sown. Ursula warns Rapayet against going into business with the Alijunas, or outsiders, who do not follow the Wayuu tribes’ rules and customs.
The film’s main themes are the dangerous, and in many cases fatal, erosion of traditions, customs, and morals by need and greed. This harm is often done by people who are either unaware of, or do not care about, the indigenous people’s customs and ethics. They only see them as pawns to carry out their get-rich-quick plans. The disintegration of these moral fibers, which have held these tribes together for hundreds of years, is depicted by the movement of different birds, each, according to Ursula, signifying another warning from mother nature and God. Peaceful people are thus transformed to godless creatures carrying out treachery, theft, rape, and murder. The elders, who still want to cling on to their traditional beliefs, do not stand a chance against the young who have their eyes and souls blinded by the lure of the vast materialistic benefits of drug dealing.
Birds of Passage is, first and foremost, a visual story where form has ascendancy over content. The framing of each shot has been carefully planned and executed. This is not surprising since the film shares the same director, producer, and cinematographer as the visually splendid Embrace of the Serpent (2015). Ciro Guerra, who helmed Embrace, here shares the directing duties with his Embrace producer, Cristina Gallego. The man behind the camera is again David Gallego. However, Guerra and Gallego never allow the visual framing to distract from the strong narrative which hooks the viewers from the opening shot through to the end. The film’s composer, Leonardo Heiblum, has made very effective use of traditional music and instruments to heighten the atmosphere. Not surprisingly, Ciro Guerra was whisked away to the US, where he has just finished filming J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians with Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015) and is based in the United Arab Emirates.