With “Birds of Passage” Ciro Guerra, alongside co-director Cristina Gallego, continues his work as historiographer of South America. Guerra is known for his previous work, “El Abrazo de la Serpiente” (“Embrace of the serpent” in the Spanish original), in which a shaman from the Amazon teams up with scientists in searching for a sacred healing plant. This is the first time that Gallego goes behind the camera. She has produced twelve films before, including this one.
Like a raconteur of a parallel and hidden history, Guerra, who is Colombian, recounts events that took place in the sixties in the peninsula of Guajira, an arid and mountainous area inhabited by indigenous peoples called the Wayuu. The various Wayuu families scattered about Guajira share ancestral traditions, folklore and values such as honor and family bonds. It’s here, sadly, that the drug trafficking family tree begins. The nascent cannabis commerce became driven by competition between tribespeople, and would lead, two decades later, to modern-day cartels.
A marriage proposal between members of two neighboring Wayuu tribes leads, through a strange set of circumstances involving an outsize dowry requirement to families becoming entangled in the cannabis trade, with catastrophic results. Rapayet, one of the men of the village, has his eyes on Zaida. Her family is asking for a significant dowry: thirty goats and twenty cows and more. Rapayet needs to come up with capital, and fast. He launches into the cannabis trade. Wealth is quickly amassed and missteps occur involving a wayward relative. The families suffer from violence and new, capitalistic, behaviors. What will move the Wayuus to act from here onward is gangster movies trope, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
Guerra and Gallego infuse “Birds” with a tragic and melancholy dimension that’s enriched by the ruggedness of the landscape. The film spans several decades and is interspaced with titled chapters.
What drugs may bring. Across this long stretch of time, glory and decadence ebb and flow in between rainy cordilleras and arid deserts, upsetting the balance. “Birds of Passage” is an exceptional film that documents not only a tribalpeople’s poisoned history, but also poses fundamental questions about rivalry, society and perception. This film is not to be missed!