This is the fourth time that Colombia has chosen a film by director Ciro Guerra for its entry in the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category. His film Embrace of the Serpent earned a nomination in 2015.
Fourteen years ago, Colombia’s Oscars entry was El Rey, a fictional version of the birth of the illegal drug trade in Colombia, which is encouraged by money-hungry Peace Corps volunteers from the United States.
Birds of Passage (Pájaros de Verano) also takes place these early years, specifically during what was known as the “Bonanza Marimbera,” between 1968 and 1980. But it focuses on the indigenous Wayúu people, who get involved in the marijuana trade, once again thanks to the presence of Peace Corps volunteers.
The Wayúu, who probably number fewer than 500,000, live on both sides of the Venezuela-Colombia border, in the extreme north of these two countries. As portrayed in Birds of Passage, the Wayúu have a colorful traditional culture (at least they did back then), and the film is a joy to look at. However, as the drug trade grows, the power of the Wayúu’s traditional ways starts to disintegrate. The violence that accompanies the trade overwhelms everything else.
Handsome young Rapayet (José Acosta) wants to marry beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes), but Zaida’s tough as nails mother, matriarch Ursula (Carmiña Martínez) makes it clear that if Rapayet wants to marry Zaida, he’s going to have to pay the family 30 goats, 20 cows, and five necklaces. Where is Rapayet, a man of humble origins, going to get the kind of money that could buy such a set of goods? It so happens that Rapayet’s older cousin, Aníbal (who comes from another Wayúu clan), is already growing marijuana on a relatively small scale. One thing leads to another; the trade grows; airplanes are brought in, firearms proliferate; people cheat each other; outside bodyguards are hired; and morals are compromised.
It’s easy to blame the corrupt foreigners for all that goes wrong, but it’s not weed that destroys the Wayúu, it’s greed. According to co-director and producer Cristina Gallego, “The Wayúu are one of the most capitalist societies I know.”
As disaster strikes the Wayúu, the flaws in their strong culture are exposed, and their society is torn apart from the inside out.
To a certain extent, Birds of Passage fits into the standard narrative of drug cartel stories, but the cinematography and costuming are so impressive that it stands out from other films in the genre. For the record, Ciro Guerra has described the film as “a film noir, a gangster movie…a western, a Greek tragedy and a Gabriel García Márquez-like tale.”
You get the idea.