62nd BFI London Film Festival: Birds of Passage Review

Guajira peninsula, northern Colombia. It’s the late 60’s; while the western world is amidst its social and cultural revolutions, a young woman, dressed in a bright red ceremonial robe, is engaged in a frenetic courtship dance with her soon-to-be husband. Set at the backdrop of a wide and windy desert, this visually striking scene introduces us to an indigenous Colombian tribe Wayuu. They are a proud and confident people, seemingly at odds with the outside world, still fully immersed in the old tribal codes, rituals and beliefs. Untouched by modernisation, Wayuu’s lead a quiet life, bound by their ancient rules… but their peace and traditions are soon to be disrupted and erased.

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Birds of Passage, the new film from the creators of the Oscar-nominated, visionary Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, chronicles a Wayuu family’s rise and fall during the so-called bonanza marimbera, a prosperous but violent decade between 1975 and 1985, which saw the origins of drug trafficking in Colombia. This epic family saga of Shakespearian proportions begins from a place of naive innocence and builds to a full-blown war. It goes from trading goats and necklaces to exchanging trucks, aeroplanes and caskets full of semi-automatic weapons, and comes across as a mythical »origin story« of drug cartels.

The drug cartel drama is but the frame, the window through which Guerra and Gallego observe the tribe’s endangered way of life and their cultural authenticity. They (re)tell the (hi)story of one specific community and its total destruction. The film is divided into five chapters, »cantos«: Wild Grass, The Graves, Prosperity, The War and Limbo. These »songs« are a nod to the narrative chants with which the Wayuu retell their history. The structure of the film also strongly resembles a classical five-act tragedy in which all the heroes are doomed to fall.

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Birds of Passage is a skilfully crafted and multi-layered sensory adventure, full of rich and vibrant colours, expressive faces, and gripping visual details that take us on an extraordinary journey between the mythic past and uncertain future. Both an anthropological research and an elegy for Wayuu traditions, both landscape poetry and a cinephile nod to film history and its classical film genre codes, this work indeed is a rare bird. Weddings, funerals and other ritualistic family gatherings evoke the Godfather saga. Wide camera shots, framing, »gringo« hats, guns and music seem like a homage to Sergio Leone’s cult spaghetti westerns. There is also a strong spiritual side of the film, with proverbs, extraordinary ceremonies, like the bone exhumation, dreams and songs that comment the plot as it unfolds. Al those things, together with the beautiful visual symbolism of birds and other significant animals, elevate the film to a completely new level.

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As it was already evident in the brilliant Embrace of the Serpent, Guerra’s and Gallego’s films aren’t just feasts for the eyes and senses. Their work shows that combining genre frames and specific indigenous ritualistic beliefs can function as a powerful metaphor for a wider understanding of different worlds and their intersections, and as a critique of colonial and capitalist politics. The collision of the traditional and the capitalist world, the tensions and contrasts of two clashing ideologies in Birds of Passage are most evident when Ursula, leader of the Wayuu clan, unwraps an ancient family talisman with a gold Rolex on her wrist. Film mediates between old traditions, rituals and superstitions of the country’s tribal history, and the ever-growing appetites of the capitalism. The death spiral of the drug-trafficking business that was set in motion in the times of “innocence” still strongly echoes in Colombia’s conflicted present.

Rating: 5 stars

Written by Ana Šturm

Edited by Sanja Struna

All photos © Snowglobe, Blond Indian Films, Ciudad Lunar Producciones and Pimienta Films

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