Birds of Passage

Director Cristina Gallego Talks Birds of Passage

“We are in the middle of the same tragedy”

The team behind Embrace of the Serpent is back! After the 2015 arthouse hit and Oscar nominee comes Birds of Passage, an electrifying Colombian cartel drama directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra. Birds of Passage gives drug wars a tribal spin by setting the drama in the land of the Wayuu clans in northern Colombia. Violence is drawn along tribal lines as Raphayet (José Acosta), a member of the Wayuu community, goes into business with his friend Moisés (Jhon Narváez) to deliver a huge score of marijuana for some American hippies. Moisés, however, is an alijuna, or outsider descended from the settler generations, and his philosophies prove much different from the Wayuu ways of Raphayet’s clan.

Told in five chapters (or “cantos”) titled “Wild Grass,” “The Graves,” “Prosperity,” “The War,” and “Limbo,” Birds of Passage charts the prosperity and demise of a Wayuu family. Birds circle within and around the family home, providing signs of good fortune and omens of doom as Raphayet, his mother-in-law Úrsula (a scene-stealing Carmiña Martínez) and their family find themselves consumed by the violence that enters their sacred territory. What unfolds is a bloody fable about the devastating effects of capitalism and colonialism as the drug wars explode violently.

Gallego, who makes her directorial debut with Birds of Passage after producing and editing Embrace of the Serpent, says the success of the earlier film paved the way for this one. “We were writing and developing this project before we shot Embrace of the Serpent,” says Gallego, speaking with That Shelf ahead of the film’s Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“Since Embrace went well, it was very easy to finance this film,” says Gallego. “It let us take the next step in the scale of film we could make. In Colombia, movies are usually pretty small because of financing.” The film noticeably ups the ante in production values and provides more adrenaline-pumping intensity than most Hollywood movies.

Although she joined Guerra on directing duties after he helmed Embrace of the Serpent solo, Gallego says that little changed in their relationship aside from the fact that she was on location for Birds of Passage. “We couldn’t say that Ciro did more of this and I that,” says Gallego. “We made the decisions together. There were things, places, or processes where his vision was more clear and I stepped to the side and there were times when mine was more clear and he stepped to the side. The film is a result of two visions that are very different, but it’s nice how these visions mix.” The result is an encounter between visions as tradition and new ways fuel the conflict we see in the film.

Birds of Passage

These tensions give Birds of Passage its potent spark as mythical and magical elements in the story foreshadow the characters’ fates. Birds of Passage draws upon folklore, gangster films, Greek tragedy, and the work of Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez to bring multiple perspectives to the story. “When we started to analyse García Márquez’s work, we saw that he wrote in Wayuu code because he grew up with Wayuu people,” explains Gallego. “The servant who taught him was Wayuu. That relation with the birds, the dreams, and the environment was in One Hundred Years of Solitude. We wanted to tell this history of the family—up and down—with those codes.” The collision of Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures resonates strongly as the story spans decades and leads to cultural divides that continue today.

Gallego adds that she, Guerra, and co-writers took precautions to ensure they represented the Wayuu ways fairly. “The research was through the Wayuu literature and the Wayuu means,” explains Gallego, adding that an anthropologist who specialized in Wayuu culture analysed the script. “He was doing corrections all the time. Traditions are very important to them.”

Part of respecting tradition came with the film’s approach to violence. Birds of Passage is brutally violent, but it doesn’t sensationalize the carnage in the way Hollywood might. Instead, it focuses on the ripple effects of violence, particularly on families.

Gallego says that this sensitivity to the violence connects the fable to the present. “We are in the middle of the same tragedy,” says the filmmaker. “Marijuana is still not legal. We in Colombia, and most of South America, are the ones who take the blows and the debts, but the consumption is still in the U.S., here [Canada], and in Europe. In these countries, drugs are a health or money problem. But from Mexico down, the real problem with drugs is violence. This is something that we need to think about. The drug traffickers and the violence would not exist without the demand.” When Birds of Passage brings its fable full circle, it delivers a potent reminder of their complicity in the cycles of violence that continue to this day.