Anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss argued we could learn more about the human mind from studying “cold” societies with fixed rituals, beliefs and traditions, than the “hot” societies of the developed world. Inevitably, when cold met hot there was only one outcome: the cold society had to warm up. Birds of Passage is a story, not of global warming but cultural warming. Rather than a loss of innocence it’s a one-way trip to perdition, told in four solemn chapters laid out over 20 years.
Columbian directors, Cristina Gallego and Cirro Guerra have produced an entirely new kind of crime movie – an ethnographic gangster tale in which age-old tribal customs rub up against the brutality of the South American narcotics trade – as if Jean Rouch had been invited to direct a sequel to The Godfather. It’s a story about the origins of the drug cartels that would become a powerful force in Columbian life, although there is more myth than social history in an account punctuated by omens, dream sequences and hints of Marquezian magical realism.
The film opens in a dry, dusty land, where a young woman named Zaida (Natalia Reyes) is emerging from a year-long seclusion in which she has been instructed in the necessary skills of womanhood. Her tribe, the Wayuu, has a strong matrilineal character, with the dominant figure being Zaida’s mother, Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), who is invested with almost magical powers.
When the friends and relations gather for Zaida’s coming-out ceremony, one young man, Rapayet (José Acosta), vows he will make her his bride. The problem is that he is a poor orphan, who has little chance of a achieving the stiff dowry price set by the imperious Úrsula. All those goats, cows and necklaces are beyond his means as a small-time trader.
Rapayet’s breakthough comes when he learns that the young Americans who are visiting Columbia as part of the Peace Corps, will pay good money for marijuana. With his wild friend, Moisés (Jhon Narváez), he goes to see another relative, Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez), who lives in a leafy, mountainous region where the weed grows naturally. There’s something vaguely dishonourable about selling this stuff to the gringos but the promise of profit overcomes any scruples and a thriving business is born.
Rapayet raises his dowry, weds Zaida, and begins to bring up a family. His business becomes increasingly lucrative as he makes a deal with the Americans to supply ever larger quantities that are flown into the United States in small planes. The fruit of his success is a mansion built squarely in the middle of a flat, desert-like expanse. It’s a statement of power and fearlessness, but not at all practical for a man soon to be engaged in full-scale gang warfare.
There are a number of catalysts that turn a profitable family venture into a Greek tragedy – from the increasingly reckless behaviour of Moisés, to the outrage provoked by Rapayet’s bad seed nephew, Leonídas (Greider Meza). One incident follows another, with Rapayet’s side of the family constantly trying to make amends to Aníbal’s clan. The medium for family diplomacy is Rapayet’s uncle, Peregrino (José Vicente Cote), who plays the “word messenger” whose role is to settle Wayuu disputes without bloodshed.
That proves to be a forlorn hope. The Wayuu are no longer trafficking in goats and cattle, but in vast sums of illicit cash. Money has corrupted everyone, making a mockery of the traditions and customs that previously held sway. Even the matriarch, Úrsula, has allowed herself to be seduced by the lifestyle the drug money has bought.
The facts behind this movie have been challenged by former members of the Peace Corps angered by the suggestion that the group ever had anything to do with organised crime, but the power of the story remains undiminished. It’s a classic morality tale in which the weapons of choice are bombs and machine guns rather than knives and swords. When Rapayet made his deal with the devil he began a process that could only end in destruction, as every Wayuu value is ignored and trashed.
Birds of Passage may be the only movie in history that saw its co-directors get divorced while shooting was underway. Neither allowed their separation to interfere with the film, which required a huge amount of research and much time spent talking with local communities.
One the main motivations behind this project was to make a feature about the drug trade from a South American perspective, quite unlike movies such as Sicario and its appalling sequel, that ask us to see everything through the eyes of American law enforcement. The typical Hollywood product sets a bunch of tough, American good guys against sinister, unscrupulous criminals from south of the border. Much of the plot is hardly more than an excuse for a series of violent action sequences.
There’s plenty of violence in Birds of Passage but no long, complicated shoot-outs. We seem to arrive when the worst is over, or leave before it happens. Solitary murders are treated as ritualistic executions, while a big scene, such the assault on Rapayet’s mansion, is viewed from a distance, as if the camera didn’t want to get involved. The emphasis is not on heroes and villains, but on fate. A fire has been lit and it cannot be contained. The Wayuu’s courtly system of settling disputes has given way to a murderous feud that will engulf a people, and in time an entire nation.
Birds of Passage
Directed by Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra
Written by Maria Camila Arias & Jacques Toulemonde Vidal, after an idea by Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra
Starring José Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Carmiña Martínez, Jhon Narváez, Greider Meza, José Vicente Cote, Juan Bautista Martínez
Columbia, Denmark, Mexico, Germany, Switzerland, France, rated MA 15+, 125 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 19 October, 2019