‘Birds of Passage’ is a Frightening, Striking Masterpiece

During the 1960s marijuana craze in Colombia, an indigenous family finds itself further and further entrenched in a lucrative yet dangerously corrupt drug business. Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra deliver the frightening yet startlingly beautiful masterpiece, Birds of Passage (in Spanish, Pájaros de verano) that chronicles this family’s rise and destruction. (RMM: 5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan

Divided into five “Cantos” or “Songs”, Birds of Passage is set in the Guajira Peninsula in the northernmost part of Colombia, where the indigenous Wayuu call home. In the early 60s, “Rapayet” (José Acosta) is a young Wayuu man looking to start a family. Luckily for him, the daughter of one of the most powerful and respected clans in the area, “Zaida” (Natalia Reyes), has just finished her traditional year of solitude and is ready to marry.

However, “Úrsula” (Carmiña Martínez), a deeply spiritual and respected member of the Wayuu and Zaida’s mother, doubts Rapayet’s worthiness on account of his close relations with the “alijuna” (the Wayuu word to describe the “other”). With the help of “alijuna” “Moisés” (Jhon Narváez), sees an opportunity in foreigners’ interest in weed, and he starts selling marijuana. After partnering with Rapayet’s relative “Aníbal” (Juan Bautista Martínez), the dowry is obtained and Rapayet and Zaida are married.

Three years later, Rapayet and Zaida have an infant son, “Miguel” (José Naider) and a daughter, “Indira” (Aslenis Márquez) on the way. Meanwhile, Rapayet is further entrenched in the drug trade, doing regular business with Moisés, Aníbal, and foreigners interested in the land’s marijuana. After Moisés goes rogue and kills Americans trying to steal weed, Úrsula urges Rapayet to kill Moisés. Rapayet spares his life, but cuts him out of the business. Moisés retaliates by killing several Wayuu men, including Aníbal’s brother, “Gabriel” (Joaquín Ramón). Upon the urging of Úrsula and spurred by Aníbal’s outrage, Rapayet finally kills his partner.

By 1968, Rapayet’s home has been transformed from a humble hut to a white stucco mansion. The young Miguel and Indira have never known a life without wealth. Zaida now wears gold in her ears and makeup on her face. The family – and Rapayet’s business – flourishes. But Úrsula, who has always been the spiritual compass of the clan, senses trouble to come. As relations between the families of Rapayet and Aníbal grow tense, threats of war creep into focus and the very fabric of these families is destroyed.

Both mesmerizing and terrifying at once, watching Birds of Passage feels like roaming the Colombian desert yourself, and finding yourself deep into a waking nightmare. Nothing less than art, directors Cristina Gallego Ciro Guerra’s work is also a wonderful example of how film can do right by the culture it represents. The audience is lucky to be able to see into the lives of these people. They are unknowingly committed to watching its demise. It seems only fitting that most of the film’s dialogue be set in the traditional Wayuu language rather than in Spanish.

While the division of the five cantos paired with traditional Wayuu music give an air of legend and indigenous mysticism to the film, the actions of the film’s main characters ground the story very painfully in reality. What is particularly horrifying is, as an audience member, witnessing how a people come to desecrate their own culture and religion until all that is left is destruction and despair. Evidence of their self-destruction appears in the gold in their ears and the ornate roof over their heads. A clash of cultures, of the Wayuu and the “alijuna”, ceases to be a battle as the one comes to dominate the other before obliterating it all together. Its imagery is striking, as the vision of Zaida’s red shroud carried by the wind is replaced by a white stucco mansion in the middle of the desert, filled with new gold accents once foreign to the Wayuu.

The women of this film are even more remarkable. Though Rapayet might be the hero of the story, Úrsula is its heart and compass. She is the matriarch, the spiritual champion whose decisions steer the course of the lives of those around her. She takes her own actions, makes her own mistakes, and does what she deems fit to protect her family and her culture. The fact that she will fail reminds us of the unstoppable and cancerous nature of colonialism, eating away at a people from the inside out.

An altogether terrifying and mesmerizing tale, Birds of Passage is truly a masterpiece. I couldn’t take my eyes away.

© Roza M. Melkumyan (2/16/19) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Rapayet and Zaida stand across from one another.

Top Photo: Zaida stands in a traditional red dress and head shawl.

Middle Photo: Wayuu women mourn the death of clan members.

Bottom Photo: Rapayet and family attend a funeral.

Photo Credits: The Orchard

Q: Does Birds of Passage pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?   


Úrsula and Zaida discuss the meaning of Zaida’s dreams.

Tags: Birds of Passage, Ciro Guerra, Cristina Gallego, FF2 Media, Pájaros de verano, Roza Melkumyan

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As a member of the FF2 Media team, Roza writes features and reviews and coaches other associates and interns. She joined the team as an intern herself during her third year of study at New York University. There she individualized her major and studied narrative through a cultural lens and in the mediums of literature, theatre, and film. At school, Roza studied abroad in Florence and London, worked as a Resident Assistant, and workshopped a play she wrote and co-directed. Since graduating, she spent six months in Spain teaching English and practicing her Spanish. Most recently, she spent a year in Armenia teaching university English as a Fulbright scholar. Her love of film has only grown over the years, and she is dedicated to providing the space necessary for female filmmakers to prosper.
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