This piece was initially published on Much Ado About Cinema in October 2018.
If you’ve seen one crime film, you feel like you’ve seen them all. Men with guns and more money than they know what to do with shoot each other over drugs, all while (poorly) trying to protect their families. It’s a story we’ve heard time and time again, and one that serves as the structure for Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s latest film, Birds of Passage. However, Birds of Passage seeks to change this perception of the crime film. Using the perspective of an indigenous group in Colombia, rather than the typical cartel hotshots, we see the effects of the drug wars on a culture, their traditions, and their way of life. This unique lens creates more sympathy, pain, and heartbreak than typically seen in the genre.
This epic tale follows a family over twenty years, as ambitious Rapayet (José Acosta) becomes involved in the American drug trade. Rapayet is part of the Wayuu, an indigenous group that lives in the northernmost part of Colombia. As part of tradition, Rapayet must acquire a hefty dowry to marry Zaida (Natalia Reyes). To acquire the dowry, he turns to selling weed to Peace Corps volunteers. In a rather on-the-nose, yet poignant moment, a white Peace Corps volunteer yells, “Long live capitalism!” to Rapayet and his partner, Moises. Capitalism will prevail, no matter the cost. As what started as a means to a dowry because a full-fledged business, Rapayet and his family begin to lose sight of Wayuu way. Zaida’s mother and village matriarch, Úrsula (Carmina Martínez), tries to keep them on the right path, but even her eyes are clouded by the opportunities provided by capitalism.
While the story follows the typical trajectory of a crime drama — small-time drug dealer becomes rich, gets into a turf war, tragedy ensues — it is how it is portrayed that sets the film apart. The Wayuu are dedicated to their traditions — everything must be done the right way at the right time by the right people. That’s the way it has always been and the way it always must be. These traditions may seem ridiculous not only to the Western viewer, but to the younger generation of Wayuu, as well. But they provide the group with a structure, a set of rules to govern themselves. The importance of these traditions is further emphasized as they are forgotten; without these rules, nothing is sacred.
Birds of Passage’s uniqueness is also found in its stunning beauty. It is shot impeccably, creating a tension between the flat, earthy, dusty desert of the Wayuu and the lush, overgrown jungle of their (eventual) enemy. The dream sequences sprinkled throughout the narrative provide a splash of magical realism that makes this film so special. Yes, it’s grounded in reality, but these dreams, and their significance, make the film feel otherworldly. Nothing particularly spectacular happens in these dreams, either, but the way they are shot makes them feel ethereal and foreboding.
There are even scenes set in the real world that feel like moments of magical realism. For example, as Rapayet earns more money, he builds his family a huge house. However, this house is situated in the middle of the desert with nothing else surrounding it. It’s a looming, white structure that feels more like a fortress than a home, a tableau of what domestic life should look like. These strange moments make Birds of Passage so special. These moments make the audience regard this film as a piece of art rather than just another gangster film.
Fans of popular narratives like Narcos, Breaking Bad, and The Departed should seek out Birds of Passage. Even more, people who don’t like those types of narratives should seek out Birds of Passage. It’s a piece of genre-bending art that dissects the meaning of tradition, the importance of family, and the destructive nature of capitalism. This is a film of epic proportions that takes the viewer on a tumultuous journey of life, death, pain, birth, love, and loss.