Birds of Passage: a generic fable of easy wealth and crime leading to doom given fresh life by an indigenous Colombian setting

Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra, “Birds of Passage / P├íjaros de Verano” (2018)

In many ways, this film tells a classic tale of individuals from poor backgrounds becoming rich and their families and communities benefiting from the wealth they bring from engaging in crime – in this case, trafficking in marijuana. The unexpected angle in this film is that the individuals and families involved are indigenous Wayuu in northern Colombia, incidentally not far from where the famous author Gabriel Garcia Marquez grew up and set many of his novels. Aspects of the film do parallel those of the novel and the novel may have been one of many inspirations for the film.

The film is framed as a parable told by a blind shepherd, with all the limitations such a framework has: characters tend to fall into stereotypes and there is always the sense that no matter what they do, their lives will end disastrously. Fate will always have its way. The parable begins with the ritual coming-of-age ceremony of teenager Zaida (Natalia Reyes) who is now available for marriage and is promptly claimed through a ritual dance by Rapayet (Jose Acosta) who is from a socially inferior family: the film does not say how his family fell on hard times. Prospective mother-in-law Ursula Pushaina (Carmina Martinez) does not trust him, believing he is cursed in some way, and sets him an impossibly high dowry to meet to deter him. With the help of his friend and business partner Moises (Jhon Narvaez), Rapayet turns from operating a coffee and whiskey stall to supplying marijuana, obtained from his relative Anibal’s plantation, to the United States through contacts with hippie Americans working in Colombia as Peace Corps members, so he can raise the money to obtain the goats, donkeys and necklaces to make up the dowry.

From then on, the plot unfolds in a number of chapters spanning nearly fifteen years, in which the Pushaina family, Rapayet and his cousins the Uliana family grow wealthy from trafficking marijuana and are able to afford mansions, cars, planes and even their own landing strips. At the same time, individual greed and ambition, and desire for material comforts and the products of Western civilisation combine with Wayuu traditions, customs and beliefs in ways that end in conflict, violence and tragic deaths. Torn between his family and tribal obligations and his friendship with Moises, Rapayet makes a choice that ends up destroying his soul. Ursula’s worldview, in which spirits are constantly communing with humans through dreams, leads her to make selfish decisions that have long-lasting consequences. Her headstrong son Leonidas is drawn to alcohol and material desires, and his impulsive behaviour leads to all-out war between the Pushainas and Rapayet’s cousins that ends in everyone’s ruin. At the end of the film, both the Pushainas and Ulianas are gone and one survivor finds herself in the same position Rapayet was in at the beginning of the film.

In addition to being a fable about greed, ambition, corruption and family feuding, the film showcases Wayuu culture and traditions, especially in its coming-of-age rituals, the veneration of the dead and beliefs about the spirit world and how ancestral spirits guide the living. Something of the way the Wayuu view life can be seen. The way in which Wayuu traditions, customs and beliefs are gradually subverted by Wayuu contact with the outside world, in particular by American capitalist ideology which emphasises self-interest, material greed and desire, and constant change and reinvention, is apparent in the plot and in characters’ actions.

The acting is minimal, even flat at times, and the plot is pushed along by the dialogue and its story-book structure. Minor characters like Peregrino Pushaina (Jose Vicente Cote) are very significant in advancing the plot and illustrating aspects of Wayuu culture. The cinematography is well done with a huge emphasis on the desert and tropical forest landscapes that the Wayuu call home. The mansion that Rapayet builds becomes a significant character in its own right, mirroring the spiritual emptiness of his family even though they clearly enjoy the luxury it provides.

While perhaps the stereotyped characters are not as deep as they could be, given that most of the cast were not professional actors, and the film provides no larger social and political context in which its fable plays out – the Americans drop out early in the film, when the reality would have been that they, through the CIA and other, perhaps government and private agencies, would have been active in the drug trafficking – “Birds of Passage” is a highly immersive work that holds viewers spellbound with its often stunning and surreal visuals as its tale proceeds inexorably to doom.