Reviewed by GREG KING

Directors: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra

Stars: Carmina Martinez, Jose Acosta, Natalia Reyes, Jhon Navaez, Juan Bautista Martinez, Greider Meza, Jose Vincente Cote.

Natalia Reyes and José Acosta in Pájaros de verano (2018)

This drama from Colombia looks at the origins of the drug trade as seen through the experiences of the Wayuu, an indigenous tribe in the remote Guajira region. The film is set in the 70s, long before the era of Pablo Escobar and the deadly drug trade made familiar to audiences through numerous narco dramas.

Birds Of Passage is the new film from directors Cristina Gallego and Giro Guerra, who gave us the gorgeous black and white anthropological drama Embrace Of The Serpent in 2015, the first feature film from Colombia to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language film Oscar. That film followed the journey of a shaman looking for a mystical plant, and looked at the clash between tradition, religion, colonialism and cultures in Colombia. It was steeped in the indigenous culture and their strong spiritual connection to the land and the past.

Inspired by a true story, Birds Of Passage explores the rise and fall of an indigenous family as they slowly become involved in the drug trade and are inevitably corrupted by the power and wealth. And while the material is different from their previous film, it does explore some similar themes – the clash between tradition values and culture and the effects of commerce, greed, ambition, honour, revenge, and moral choices.

The insular Wayuu have their own traditions and language and live in isolation in harsh arid conditions in the Guajira peninsula region. Rapayet (newcomer Jose Acosta, in his first feature film) is something of an outsider in the community but he has big dreams and wants to earn respect. He wants to marry the pretty Zaida (Natalia Reyes), but Ursula (Carmine Martinez, from Dirty Habits, etc), the powerful and formidable matriarch of the family, doesn’t think he is a good match for her daughter and sets an impossibly high dowry. To come up with the money Rapayet teams up with his friend Moises (Jhon Narvaez) and sells drugs to a group of young American students with the Peace Corps. He gets the drugs from his relative Anibal (Juan Bautista Martinez) who owns a plantation in the jungle.

The family begins to make more money that they could imagine. But working in the drug business is fraught with dangers, violence and betrayal. A wild card in the mix is Zaida’s younger brother Leonidas (Greider Meza), a headstrong, selfish and arrogant teenager who acts impulsively and recklessly without thinking about the consequences. His actions bring about the downfall of the family and its enterprise.

Written by Maria Camila Avios and Jacques Toulemonde, Birds Of Passage spans a decade from the late 60s through until 1980, and unfolds in five distinct chapters. The film features some gorgeous cinematography from David Gallego (who was similarly responsible for the luminous black and white cinematography for Embrace Of The Serpent), and he gives us some surreal and striking imagery. Ursula’s house, situated in the middle of the remote flat desert, is presented as an oasis of calm from the violence of the drug trade. There are shoot-outs and executions, but most of the violence happens off screen. The title refers in part to the small planes that ship the drugs to the US.

Gallegos and Guerra steep us in the culture of this insular indigenous tribe and depicts a unique culture that is rarely seen on screen. The pair explore the importance of family, the word messenger, the rituals before showing us how drugs, wealth and power corrupt their society. The drama plays out like a Greek tragedy.

While heavily shaped by the culture and indigenous traditions of the Wayuu tribes, Birds Of Passage is still more accessible than the pair’s previous film.


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