The Colombian drug cartel is an entity that has been portrayed and parodied in popular culture for multiple decades. Narcos is one of Netflix’s premiere shows, and Pablo Escobar has been played in high-profile entertainment more times than be counted at this point. While many of these portrayals may be faithful and brutal in their depictions of mid-twentieth century South America’s grip on the drug trade, no piece has ever tackled its impact on the many indigenous tribes that occupied those countries during this time quite like directors Cristina Gallego and Corp Guerra in their newest feature, Birds of Passage.
The film is based off of true stories from the Wayuu tribe, an indigenous people occupying the land in the Guajira Peninsula in northernmost Colombia and Northwest Venezuela. We follow Rapayet as his family and tribe get involved in the trafficking of marijuana at the end of the 1960s, and stay with them until a decade after the story begins, at the end of the 1970s. The scope of this film, therefore, feels novelistic, and epic in scope. We watch characters add and subtract members from their families, as well as characters we are introduced to in the first chapter (in a total of five) grow up into contributing members of the Wayuu people. We really get a sense of how this market changes those at its center. At the beginning, Rapayet is a feisty, hot-headed young man looking for love. The character we see in the film’s last chapter is nearly unrecognizable. The transformation that takes place is similar to that of Walter White in Breaking Bad, which is my favorite television show of all time. Like that series, I had no idea where the story was going to go next. The end of the film, as well as many other climactic ends to the film’s various chapters, very much surprised me in a positive way.
Perhaps what is most impressive about the filmmaking on display here is the mixing of three different languages in the screenplay. The Wayuu tribe have their own native language, and this is what is primarily spoken throughout the film. Outside of the tribe, though, we hear traditional Spanish and English intermittently. Speaking three different languages is difficult enough, but knowing how and when to use each one in any specific instance of a screenplay is many times more impressive, from a storytelling standpoint, and speaks to the creative team’s firm hold on this story, and the vision they had for the final product.
The cinematography is appropriately bleak, given the desert setting. Lots of landscape shots help you appreciate just how difficult it is for this tribe to make a decent living in their, frankly, barren soil. As well, the score is incredibly appropriate, but at the same time strange and unsettling. It was used sparingly throughout the over two hour runtime, but this made its appearance more effective overall. As well, the acting complements the entire project, as our lead playing Rapayet must also go back and forth between his indigenous language and the language of the “alijunas,” as his mother-in-law refers to them as constantly throughout the story. Each of these characters are given enough time for the audience to become attached to them, either positively or negatively, and sometimes both. This depth gives Birds of Passage the opportunity to soar, and it is not one that the filmmakers squandered in the slightest.