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Birds of Passage
Courtesy of Birds of Passage

New gangster film Birds of Passage flips the genre on its head

This crime saga introduces us to an indigenous community and Colombia’s weed boom of the 1980s

In Birds of Passage, the gangster genre receives a dazzling, culturally enriching makeover. Co-directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, the Colombian crime saga opens with a yonna dance in the Guajira desert. The hypnotic sequence involves a teenage girl, Zaida (Natalia Reyes), leaping around in a red cape as she’s encircled by locals and live percussion. When the drums start, Zaida raises her arms, like a bird taking flight, and signals that she’s entering womanhood. The ceremony is our introduction to the Wayúu people, an indigenous community in northern Colombia whose beliefs are rooted in spirituality, family loyalty, and obeying the advice of dreams. “Dreams prove the existence of the soul,” Zaida’s grandmother declares in Wayuunaiki. “Don’t be scared.” You haven’t seen a crime epic like this before, let alone one that still delivers the genre thrills of, say, The Godfather and Scarface.

“Dreams are an essential part of Wayúu society,” says Guerra, speaking to me on the phone from Bogotá. “That’s something they have in common with many indigenous cultures in South America, in which dreams are not something supernatural. It’s not physical, but another side of reality.” Not only does Úrsula, the family matriarch, make crucial business decisions based on dreams, we witness a few of her fantastical visions, too. “We feel that cinema is very close to the nature of dreams,” Guerra continues. “There is an alternate reality we are witnessing when we are watching a film. We think cinema is a great medium for surrealistic images, and to go beyond our rational consciousness.”

Although Birds of Passage marks the fourth feature from Gallego and Guerra, it’s their first time as co-directors. Previously, Guerra had operated as the sole helmer, while Gallego was credited as a producer. It’s a partnership that caught worldwide attention with 2015’s Embrace of the Serpent, a trippy voyage to the Amazon that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film. But unlike the black-and-white palette of Embrace of the SerpentBirds of Passage explodes with colour and fills its widescreen frame with the desert’s endless horizon. The inherently cinematic landscape, captured on 35mm, is the kind of natural beauty that can’t be faked with CGI.

“We had a sandstorm in the first few weeks,” Callego, on the same phone line, recalls of the shoot. “It had been six years since there was rain, but at one point we were almost flooded in the desert. At the end an electrical storm destroyed our set. You can see it in the film: it evolves from a sunny season to a rainy season.”

“Some of them said we should do an animal sacrifice to ask their ancestors to help us with the weather,” Guerra adds. “But we decided not to do it, and had to brave the weather because of it.”

Such is the film’s musicality, it’s structured as five “cantos” (or songs), stretching from 1968 to 1980. After the yonna ritual, Rapayet (José Acosta) expresses an interest in marrying Zaida, but is given a dowry of 30 goats, 20 cows, five necklaces, and two decorative mules. Desperate to afford the pricey sum, Rapayet chances upon some U.S. Peace Corps volunteers who are in need of weed. It leads to more and more Americans wishing to get high from the region’s supply; in later cantos, Rapayet evolves into a wealthy man whose luxurious house stands absurdly alone in a dusty desert. With planes smuggling marijuana in and out (hence they’re “birds of passage”), the Wayúu traditions become harder to maintain – not to mention Úrsula’s foreboding dreams about her family’s safety.

”Younger generations don’t know this story. We felt it was an opportunity to tell a different story, from a different point of view, and to talk about what this process has been for us as Colombians” – Ciro Guerra

This drug boom, known as the Bonanza Marimbera (“marijuana bonanza”), is a little-discussed part of Colombian history. According to Geurra, the Bonanza Marimbera and its subsequent infighting became a taboo subject in the late ‘80s. “People who were alive during the time remember it,” he explains. “But younger generations don’t know this story. We felt it was an opportunity to tell a different story, from a different point of view, and to talk about what this process has been for us as Colombians.”

The duo hatched the idea when preparing for 2009’s The Wind Journeys. During that shoot, they encountered Wayúu people who regaled them with stories about their cultural traditions and the Bonanza Marimbera. “In 2007, we had a dream to do a big gangster film that can talk about the start of this tragedy,” says Gallego. “But we felt we weren’t mature enough. We waited until it was appropriate, and Embrace of the Serpent allowed us to build this big film. We needed 10 years to have it in our mind, and to wait for the right moment.”

That process involved incorporating the Wayúu people into the production of Birds of Passage. “Our approach is to be very respectful to indigenous communities, to the way they self-determine what goes on in their territory,” Guerra notes. “We invited them to be part of the project, and they became integral from the beginning. It’s a collaborative process because it’s really important that there’s authenticity to everything in the film.” Members of the Wayúu community represented 30 per cent of the crew and helped contribute to the traditional outfits, the meditative music and even the acting. The only “name” cast member is Reyes, a Colombian telenovela star making her second-ever movie appearance – later in 2019 she’ll co-lead the upcoming Terminator reboot. (Yes, there’s another one.)

Like Reyes, Embrace of the Serpent also caught the eye of Hollywood. In recent years, Guerra has turned down numerous blockbuster projects (he declines to name any specifics) but is currently in postproduction on his first English-language movie, Waiting for the Barbarians. Principal photography for the adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel wrapped at the end of last year, with Robert Pattinson, Mark Rylance, and Johnny Depp in the main roles.

“Robert’s a really creative actor,” Guerra raves. “He’s an artist who’s always looking for new possibilities to invent and dream. He had a way of working that makes things alive all the time, and he’s very enthusiastic about the possibilities of every character, of every scene.”

Was Guerra concerned about casting Depp, an actor who’s undergoing various legal troubles and has been accused of significant crimes? “I am not interested at all in celebrity gossip,” the director says. “I think Johnny’s a great actor, and he gave himself completely to the film and to the character. I am personally not aware of whatever is said about him in the media, nor am I interested. I think what he did in this film was one of his best performances, and he was also very generous and very kind. And hopefully audiences will appreciate his work in this film.”

Waiting for the Barbarians will be Guerra’s first film without Gallego as a producer or co-director. The duo were a married couple who divorced during the production of Birds of Passage. That said, their creative relationship hasn’t necessarily ended. Right now, Gallego is developing her – or perhaps their – next movie project. “It’s based on the Independence of Colombia,” she says, “and the building of our society, of our country as a Republic. I’m doing the research on a strong female character, and we are deciding if we are going to co-direct.”

“Our approach is to be very respectful to indigenous communities, to the way they self-determine what goes on in their territory” – Ciro Guerra

In the meantime, there’s still Birds of Passage. Despite narrowly missing out on an Oscar nomination (it made the nine-movie shortlist), the mob movie wowed crowds at Cannes and soared on the festival circuit. The most important screening, though, was a local premiere, on an inflatable screen, in the desert, for the Wayúu people. “It was a sign of respect to them,” Callego says. “They were happy, because we were respectful with their traditions, with their language, with their history. It’s not a nice portrait, but they told us that they recognise that it’s their history, and that they don’t want to erase or deny it.”

Moreover, Birds of Passage offers a rebuke to Netflix’s Narcos, an American TV series that depicts Colombians as caricaturish drug overlords responsible for their own undoing. Even if Guerra and Gallego are outsiders to the Wayúu region, Birds of Passage is a rare case of Colombians getting to tell their own story. “This genre of cinema has traditionally been a celebration of violence, machoism, and criminals,” Guerra says. “Today, many young people believe that Pablo Escobar is a hero, or that these criminals are actually heroes.”

“In fact, in Colombia, this has not been a process of people who should be glorified. This process has been about the destruction of society, and it took decades to get out of it. We are still suffering from it. In the Guajira region, where we shot the film, there’s still consequences from that time. We have been blamed, and Colombians have been stigmatised as terrorists and drug dealers. We are actually part of a much more complex social process in society.”

Birds of Passage was show at The International Film Festival of Rotterdam is out in UK cinemas and on Curzon On Demand on May 17.