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.

The Embrace of the Serpent: a film condemning European colonialism and its effects also carries a message of reconciliation and hope

Ciro Guerra, “The Embrace of the Serpent / El Abrazo de la Serpiente” (2015)

Filmed on location in the Amazon rainforest region, this remarkable film features two parallel stories that involve the shaman Karamakate set 30 years apart. In the earlier story, German explorer / ethnographer Theo Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), accompanied by man-servant Manduca (Yauenku Migue), is ailing from a severe illness and needs treatment and a cure; he is brought to the young Karamakate (Niblio Torres) who initially declines to help as he distrusts Europeans for having destroyed his people and their culture. After Theo tells the shaman that he has seen some of his people and can take him to them, K agrees to go with him and Manduca and lead them to the yakruna plant that will apparently cure Theo. Theo promises to abide by various prohibitions that the shaman places on him. The threesome endure a testy relationship while sailing on the Amazon due to K’s distrust of Manduca for abandoning his culture for that of European ways and of Theo for being white. Manduca loyally defends Theo who bought his freedom from a rubber plantation owner. On their journey, the trio encounter a mission run by a lone priest for abandoned orphans; the priest has forbidden the children from using their own languages and runs a severe religious Christian regime that includes physical punishment.

Years later, American botanist Richard Evans (Brionne Davis), using an English translation of Theo’s published notes, posted to Germany by Manduca after the German died in the rainforest, comes to the Amazon to find Karamakate. Evans’ real purpose is to find disease-free rubber trees for the US, since the usual Southeast Asian sources of rubber have been overtaken by Japan during the Second World War; but he conceals this from Karamakate, telling the shaman he is interested in finding the plant that healed Theo for its medicinal qualities.

Through both stories the film is a powerful exploration of the extent to which European culture has devastated native Amazon cultures and peoples with the consequent loss of native knowledge and human connections with nature. In both stories, Theo and Richard must learn to divest themselves of material possessions and Western assumptions and patterns of thinking, and to listen to and follow their inner voices, and rediscover their inner lives and worlds through dreaming; only by doing so can they find what they have been truly seeking, which is the nature of reality and finding their true selves and place in the cosmos. Karamakate for his part must also learn what his true purpose is as the lone survivor of his people and the sole repository of all their knowledge and history. Just as the white men must learn that the yakruna plant cannot be abused for profit or grown in ways that abuse its sacred properties, so Karamakate is led on his own spiritual path and release from the emptiness he has felt for allowing his anger at European and mestizo abuse of the yakruna plant to overcome him and cause Theo’s death 30 years earlier. He comes to realise his knowledge isn’t just for his own people but is for the wider world beyond that needs it.

The monochrome look of the film gives it a surreal quality and the exquisite editing enables the narrative to shift back and forwards in time; this allows the film also to track the fortunes of the mission orphans over time. The lone priest who abused the orphans physically is replaced by a crazed self-appointed messiah. In this the film makes a statement about the effect that cultural genocide has had on Amazon peoples and contrasts the religious extremism encouraged by self-styled Christian leaders with the mystical journeys of Theo, Richard and Karamakate. The time shifts also enable viewers to experience time and Karamakate’s own experiences in particular as circular, highlighting the shaman’s own redemption and his frailties as a human.

The climax of the film is filmed in colour and seems a bit flat and disappointing but this is a minor quibble compared with the rest of the film. It is a strong and devastating critique of European colonialism and the capitalist quest to commodify and exploit the natural world for profit, and also shows a way in which all humans can find reconnection with the world of nature and the spirit world. Ultimately this is a film of redemption, reconciliation and hope.