Birds of Passage – Review

South American stories of drugs and crime have become a staple of modern cinema and television. Often focussing on the crime lords and families that have fed the worlds hunger for illicit drugs. However, with Birds of Passage  Ciro Guerra (Embrace the Serpent) and Cristina Gallego bring us a family saga that reflects the complex interface between indigenous culture and western desire in a 1960’s and 70’s Columbia.

Split into five acts (or songs) Birds of Passage taking us on a sweeping family journey, exploring the traditions of the past and the devastating impact of drugs, money and control. Our Journey begins in the wind swept Northern Columbian villages of the Wayúu people with a coming of age ceremony for Zaida (Natalia Reyes). Dance, celebration and gifts marking her transition to adulthood, while providing opportunities for potential suiters to stake their desires. Enter Rapayet (José Acosta) who sits on the fringes of the village, his life already verging on the more more modern business opportunities of a country in transition and change. His desire for Zaida is strong and as the nephew of Peregrino the Word Messenger (José Vicente Cotes) he is given the opportunity to provide a substantial dowry in taking her hand in marriage. Much to the distrust or her mother and village Matriarch Ursula (Carmiña Martínez).

Striving for success and importance in their respective communities, Raphayet and his close friend Moises (Jhon Narváez) seize an opportunity to distribute marijuana to a group of travelling Americans. Who when not handing out anti-communist flyers are seeking their drugs fix and party opportunities in a country and culture they clearly do not understand. Involving his cousin Aníbal (Juan Martínez), Raphayet negotiates a partnership with a different clan down in the sierra, using donkeys to transport the drugs to the American tourists. This entrepreneurial spirit does not go unnoticed in American circles, with Raphayet, Moises and Aníbal soon engaged in a drugs trade of increasing wealth, conflict and cultural segregation.

Character studies are beautifully rendered, as we see the traditions of a culture built on talismans, honour and live stock, replaced by cars, guns and financial business

Birds of Passage never looses focus of the family, culture and Wayúu traditions in a journey where money, wealth and power slowly strip back individuals and communities. It is this exploration of identity and culture that make Birds of Passage a very different film to previous stories based on the emerging Columbian drugs trade of the 60’s and 70’s. This is a film that understands the social impact of a drugs trade born from cultures of differing values and ideas, and the eventual interface of the opposing worlds.

Character studies are beautifully rendered, as we see the traditions of a culture built on talismans, honour and live stock, replaced by cars, guns and financial business. Affecting each of the key characters and communities in different ways. While stripping them all of cultural norms and safety of their indigenous lives. No character fully understanding the eventual loss and destruction of identity that the trade and increasing conflict will bring. Until it is too late. The birds, celebrated by Wayúu culture also acting as omens of the change and destruction that is to come.

The interface between tradition and invading Western ideals is further enhanced by the films beautiful cinematography. Intertwining the rich cultural celebrations and traditions of a proud people, against stark and modern monoliths of wealth and power. The films score also reflecting these two opposing worlds and the clash they inevitably bring.

Birds of Passage is a journey into the heart and sole of communities that never fully understood the business invading their lives. Including the cultural impact of tribal social structures in a global trade uninterested in anything except money. This is a film that never seeks to blame opposing cultural forces for the eventual creation of a world wide drugs trade that has led to so much destruction. But it does ask you to reflect on the imposition of wealth and money on cultures built on community and tradition in way no other film of the genre has managed.