When it comes to movie plots, familiarity can often breed contempt. If we’ve seen a story done before, what’s the point in watching another film just like it? On paper, Birds of Passage should feel familiar, as it is a mix of two common plots. It is a crime thriller that tells the story of a family torn apart by the drug trade and it is also a film about indigenous people (in this case, the Wayuu people of northern Colombia) trying to find a balance between ancient tradition and an ever-changing modern world. These two plot points are so common they border on cliché, but Birds of Passage (directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra) doesn’t feel familiar at all. Instead it hits the sweet spot of feeling fresh without being alienating.
Taking place in the 60s and 70s, Birds of Passage is a fictionalized account of the start of the Colombian drug trade told from the perspective of two Wayuu families. In 1968, Rapayet (José Acosta), who is Wayuu, and his friend Moises (Jhon Narváez), who isn’t, begins selling marijuana to members of the Peace Corps so Rapayet can earn money for a dowry to marry Wayuu Zaida (Natalia Reyes). Using the supply grown by Rapayet’s cousin Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martinez), the duo
From its opening shot, Birds of Passage is fully immersed in Wayuu culture, Zaida emerging from her year-long confinement in her house (a rite of passage for Wayuu girls). She emerges from the 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 dress so they look like wings and swoops around Rapayet like a bird of prey.
Commendably, Gallego and Guerra don’t give much exposition about Wayuu culture and tradition. For the most part, the viewer is expected to be able to understand the character’s world through their actions, and any expositional dialogue in the film is minimal and feels natural for the interaction. The film is filled with actions and imagery that won’t make sense outside of a very specific cultural context, and yet is never confusing.
It’s easy for films about criminals to turn the outlaw characters into objects of either scorn or pity, but Birds of Passage manages to subvert this by giving us complex characters portrayed with an appropriate sense of nuance. This is most aptly displayed with how the film handles the clash between modern and traditional life, specifically in regards to Zaida’s mother, Ursula (beautifully played by Carmiña Martínez). Throughout the film Ursula is seen as a Cassandra-like figure: she interprets Zaida’s dream about her grandmother as a death omen and she accurately predicts the ill fortune that will befall Rapayet – first, when he goes into business with Moises (an outsider) and when Rapayet forces Leonidas to do manual labor as penitence for disrespecting Aníbal. Forcing Leonidas to act as a slave would also break
While on the surface the film is on Ursula’s (ergo tradition’s) side, a deeper look subverts this. The Wayuu have a very strong sense of honor, which is a handicap for a drug dealer and causes the rift between Rapayet and Moises. Furthermore, every honorable action that Ursula wants Rapayet to take may please the spirits, but would be seen as disrespectful to Aníbal, and thus cause a conflict anyway. These moments are quite fatalistic, granting the story a sense of classical tragedy.
The film is filled with actions and imagery that won’t make sense outside of a very specific cultural context, and yet is never confusing.
Despite the bleakness of the film, Birds of Passage is a gorgeous film to watch. Cinematographer David Gallego manages to utilize naturalism without losing style. Most impressive are the night shots, which are a superb example of cinematic chiaroscuro. Diegetic light sources turn the characters into slivers of moving colors in the moonlight or washed out targets in headlights. The editing also adds to the film’s visual flourish, a scene of Moises and Rapayet driving in the night transitioning into a mob of grieving women being particularly effective.
Perhaps my opening sentence was incorrect; perhaps familiarity in and of itself doesn’t cause contempt. After all, no story can be truly original; we can only take the familiar and make it new. Fortunately, Birds of Passage manages to take the familiar and the new and create something truly memorable from it.