Marx may have gotten a lot of things wrong, but he got one thing right about capitalism: it respects no boundaries or traditions in the search to satisfy its insatiable appetite for profit. That’s the story, in a nutshell, of Ciro Guerra and Christina Gallego’s film Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano), which charts the consequences when modern capitalism, in the form of the drug trade, comes to a traditional community in Colombia. But this film is no economic tract, but instead a fascinating and beautifully-shot work which is a worthy successor to Guerra’s 2015 Embrace of the Serpent (which was produced by Gallego, and was the first film from Colombia to be nominated for an Oscar).
Birds of Passage begins in the 1960s among the Wayúu people in the Guajira desert region of northern Colombia. A beautiful young woman, Zaida (Natalia Reyes), has just completed a year-long confinement which began when she first menstruated; having endured this traditional ritual, she is now eligible to marry. A young man, Rapayet (José Acosta) wants to marry her, but the clan matriarch Ursula (Carmiña Martínez) doesn’t think too much of him. Rather than refusing him outright, she does what characters in fairy tales often do: she sets him a seemingly impossible task, that of assembling a dowry that includes 50 goats, 20 cows, and a number of very specific necklaces. There’s no idealizing of the old ways in this movie, in other words, and no sentimental implication that the Wayúu are some kind of noble savages who were corrupted by modern commerce. Rather, their entry into the drug trade, and the consequences that follow, are the logical consequence of adherence to their own traditions.
Rapayet is not a man to give up easily, and sees the opportunity to make enough money to purchase this ridiculous dowry by selling pot to Peace Corps hippies (who ironically, by furthering capitalism so directly, are actually doing some of the anti-Communist work they are supposed to be carrying out). Rapayet may be on the fringe of the clan, but he doesn’t have to look far for a supplier: his cousin Anibal (Juan Martínez) grows pot. Once drugs and drug profits enter this traditional community, they basically take over, and soon many Wayúu are involved in the trade. Not surprisingly, traditional ways also begin to fall by the wayside, and outsiders soon become involved in their business, include Raphayet’s pal Moises (John Narvaez), who proves to be a literal loose cannon.
Once the threshold of explicit violence is crossed, there’s no going back, and in some ways the story of Birds of Passage will feel familiar if you’ve been watching Narcos or any of the many other stories of a clan that made it big by working outside the law, only to find that it’s easier to grasp the devil by the tail than it is to let him go. Guerra and Gallego’s film has a completely different feel from any of those conventional tales, however, and blends surrealism with explicit naturalism in a way that is extremely effective but also hard to describe. The experience of watching this film is enhanced by the immersive sound design blending natural sounds with music that places you firmly in the world of the characters, and stunning cinematography by David Gallego, who seems incapable of framing a boring shot. The Wayúu may live in a harsh region where muted colors are the norm, but Birds of Passage fairly explodes with color, most notably in a ritual dance performed by Zaida after her release from confinement, where she seems to be a beautiful red bird flirting with each of her suitors in turn. | Sarah Boslaugh