The Wayuu people of Northern Colombia have lived the same way for many years, surviving both the conquests of the English and the Spanish. This belief in tradition is seen by the opening of Birds of Passage, the latest film from Embrace of The Serpent director Ciro Guerra, which details a traditional courtship whereby a man wins the hand of the come-of-age Zaida (Natalia Reyes) by not falling over during a traditional dance. Yet, their way of life faces an even greater threat in this movie: Americans looking for cheap drugs.
It starts so simply, with our protagonist, Rafa (José Acosta), trying to drum up the money to pay for the dowry. Selling coffee seems to be a profitable business, but the money it makes is nothing compared to what the Americans on tour are willing to pay for some quality marijuana. Rafa soon has enough money to not only to pay for the dowry, but to provide for his entire clan, ruthlessly ruled by his mother-in-law Ursula (Carmina Martínez). Starting in 1968 with the import of weed to the hippie generation, Birds of Passage takes an epic journey all the way to the cocaine 80s, depicting a society slowly rotting from the inside.
The film has a five act structure — although here they are labelled as “Songs” — a fitting arc considering that it takes the form of a classical tragedy. Raja’s fatal flaw, his inability to reconcile the traditional customs of his people with the cutthroat world of the drug trade, anchors the themes of the movie, making him a corollary for everything else that goes on.
Although focusing on just one clan’s way of life, Birds of Passage feels like an allegory for the country as a whole. The drug trade may have started with a noble aim to provide for one’s family, but the nature of the beast slowly corrodes everything it touches. This is best expressed by the changes in production design and clothing — soon traditional handmade clothes are replaced by designer brands, and tents and stick houses are replaced by lavish mansions seemingly transposed directly from the Middle East. These developments happen without any announcement, making the Wayuu people’s seeming ease with these changes feel all that more jarring.
By focusing on local tradition and creating characters far removed from gangster cliché, Birds of Passage strays far from the stereotypes evinced in TV shows such as Narcos. We see many ancient customs taking place, most notably the exhumation of dead bodies, still set against the backdrop of men holding sub-machine guns and wearing tailor-made brands. This tension between modernity and tradition allows the film to feel fresh, reinventing the Colombian drug genre when seemingly endless films and TV shows about Pablo Escobar are starting to wear it out.
Ciro Guerra, co-directing with his producer Cristina Gallego, has a brilliant eye for intensely detailed tableaus, using the natural beauty of the desert to evoke classic widescreen westerns. He gives the Wayuu people a certain mythic stature, all the while lamenting the tragedy that has seemingly befallen them. The sins of the father — infected by the drug trade — are passed on between generation to generation, making it seem almost certain that the customs of these people will fade away. Yet by paying such close attention to their way of life, Guerra is shining an important light on these indigenous peoples. While globalisation may mean that nearly all people become Westernised to a certain extent, Guerra shows the importance of knowing where you come from, and the importance of honouring ancient customs. Somehow reserving judgement, Birds of Passage succeeds both as an entertaining crime epic and as a tragic depiction of a culture in decline.