Birds of Passage


Film. Narcos : we know them backwards and forwards.
But what was there before ? Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra go back
to the heart of evil in Birds of Passage,
an epic tale about the Wayuu Indians.

By Michael Patin

Reading time 3 min.

In 2006, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra settled down on the Northern Coast of Colombia to prepare their movie The Wind Journeys (2009). Out there, they asked around to know more about the  « bonanza marimbera » period, which marks the beginning of cannabis export towards the USA during the 70s and 80s. A blindspot in the country’s history, and yet it caused the disparition of almost the totality of an indigenous population : the Wayuus. The directors bring back to life these pioneers of drug trafficking as the (anti)heroes of Birds of passage. In front of their camera, an obsessing question remains : how did an entire nation wound up living under the thumb of narco trafficking? This bruise that Hollywood (among others) loves exalting so much. One had to take back their voices to bring the truth to light, when it is usually altered by the fascination surrounding Escobar and his minions. Going back to the core of this Colombian evil.

Going back to the core
of this Colombian evil.

While facing this kind of challenge, the easy way would have been to romanticize « bonanza marimbera », to recall an  obviously naïve and pure « before » , a lost innocence. Guerra and Gallego bravely ignore this temptation through an ethnological and poetic gaze, already the main asset in their former movie Embrace of the Serpent — rewarded in 2015 during the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes. Every symbolism and rituals present in the movie belongs to the Wayuu tradition, shown under the light of fatality. An epic tale filled with flamboyant characters. It is reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez’ long genealogies, and the fratricide violence, mystical omens and surreal visions that come along with them. Just like this luxury villa implanted in the middle of nowhere, where now rich indigenous families sit around, waiting for the enemy.

Through the downfall of the Wayuus, it is the myth of the good savages that is blown up. The movie brings to light a clan system in which anything can be bargained : food as well as women, speech as well as life. A civilization that embraced capitalism, like a distant cousin it had been waiting for in order to fall into terror and self destruction. Bringing out the importance of the « palabrero », whose mediator role reminds us of the « consigliere » in the mafia. In the same way that the family leaders remind us of some godfathers of cinema — the shadow of Scorcese always looming over. Gallego and Guerra are even better at playing with those conventions — defined by Hollywood, as they find many reasons to reclaim them, since this issue is at the heart of their own culture.

The wonderful anomaly that is Birds of Passage can be appreciated as both the prelude and the antithesis of every narco movie. A painting where violence is always close by — and more or less satisfying — as well as the haunting malediction of an entire country.

  • Narcos
  • Pablo Escobar
  • Ciro Guerra
  • Gallego
  • Colombie

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