The indigenous people of the Guajira Peninsula of Colombia, the Wayuu, are the stars of Birds of Passage. Their resilience and pride (they were never conquered by the Spanish) is evident in everything they do. The Wayuu hold to their traditions and to clan loyalties. The Wayuu seek guidance from dreams, from nature, seeing premonitions all around them. Tradition can be fierce, and the Wayuu are fierce in their devotion. One of the great pleasures of Birds of Passion is watching the actors (most of the cast are Wayuu) express deep emotions and conflicts while reflecting the constraints of the formality and taboos of the Wayuu culture.
The co-star of Birds of Passage is the region itself—unique, starkly beautiful, austere. The Guajira is not an easy land. The lowlands are a coastal desert; thick and wet forests blanket the highlands. In 1968, as the events of depicted in this film (based on a true story) commence, the Wayuu are as tied to the land as they were in pre-Colombian times. This is the Wayuu’s little corner of the earth, and the Wayuu have zealously defended it for centuries. At one point in the film, a matriarch admonishes a younger man to defend the land properly, as the Wayuu have always done—against pirates, the Dutch, the English (Sir Francis Drake among them). Birds of Passage is shot in simple, direct, thought-provoking takes, making you feel the heat, the desolation, the isolation. Nature is close at hand. An extended visit to the region is now on my bucket list.
The stage is set by the emergence of a teenage girl, Zaida (Natalia Reyes) from her “confinement,” an extended coming of age ritual to prepare her for adulthood. Zaida’s mother, Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), along with the matriarchs of the clan, closely attends Zaida. Her suitor, Rapayet (José Acosta) appears from out of the desert. The two perform a beautiful traditional courtship dance, La Yonna, in an extraordinary sequence that brought tears to my eyes.
The Peace Corps, in what is an extraordinary irony given their name, have arrived in the Guajira. They’re on the scene to help the natives, warn them against Communism, and have a lot of fun. The volunteers lounge around, swimming topless, sleeping on the beach, and they’re looking for weed. Rapayet, it turns out, can hook them up.
And so begins la Bonanza Marimbera, the marijuana boom of the 70s. Birds of Passage tells a terrible and vital story about modernity and commerce. The events unfold in a series of Cantos (songs), and proceed with a fateful determination to their end. The Wayuu, who had for centuries successfully resisted all interlopers, have finally met their match with the USA’s hippie emissaries. The wealth to be had from drug smuggling does what no foreign invaders could ever do.
Birds of Passage reminded me of what cinema can do. See it in a theater, if you can.
Birds of Passage, directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra. Written by María Camila Arias & Jacques Toulemonde. Produced by Katrin Pors & Gallego. Cinematography by David Gallego. Music by Leonardo Heiblum. In Spanish and Wayuu with English subtitles. Released by The Orchard.