In Birds of Passage, directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, the violent birth of Colombia’s drug trade destroys a unique traditional culture.
Colombia Goldby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The Wayuu are an indigenous tribe that live in a desert peninsular in the far north of Colombia. They have deeply ingrained traditional rituals and their own spirituality of dreams and omens. They defend their culture against erosion by outsiders – the aliujuna – be they Colombians or gringos (Americans).
Set in the 1970s, Birds of Passage starts with beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes) and the ceremony celebrating her becoming a woman. As she dances the traditional yonna, Rapayet (José Acosta), a young man from a neighbouring tribe dances with her and vows to marry her. But though he is from a neighbouring tribe, he is returning from the city where he lived growing up and this experience has corrupted the purity of his Wayuu heritage. He can speak Spanish as well as the tribe’s language and thinks he knows how to do business with the alijuna.
To raise the dowry he has to pay for Zaida, he seizes the opportunity to sell mule-loads of the marijuana that grows freely on his cousin’s plantation in the hills to the gringos who crave it and he turns this into an extended family business. At first it’s successful and grows rapidly and exponentially, enriching him and his family. He builds a sleek house where their palm leaf huts were – though they still sleep in hammocks rather than beds – owns cars and even a plane. But over a decade, with these riches come rivalry, betrayal and violent warfare with modern weapons between formerly close and peaceful communities.
The film has stunning shots of the harsh environment the Wayuu live in and an almost ethnographic observation of the traditions intrinsic to their life. There’s an other-worldly soundtrack played on traditional instruments. In tune with nature, they respect omens in the natural world and, for them, in a society where nothing is written, the word is sacred, with certain elders having the protected status, similar to that of ambassador, of Word Messenger.
Ursula (Carmina Martinez), Zaida’s mother, is the matriarch and spiritual leader who is prepared to do anything to keep her family together. But, strong as she is, even as she fights to maintain the traditions, the corruption that has been introduced though Rayayet’s contacts with the outside world is desecrating them.
Birds of Passage is fascinating, thought-provoking and saddening as we see the roots of the lawless drugs trade Colombia became known for and watch a threatened culture destroying itself.
Birds of Passage premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, screened at the BFI London Film festival and is released on 17 May 2019 in the UK.