On the occasion of the film's shortlisting for a Best Foreign Film nomination by the Academy, I wanted to add to zedz' praise for Birds of Passage from the Women Director's List thread:zedz wrote: ↑Sun Aug 05, 2018 10:05 pmBirds of Passage (Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra) – This is Cristina Gallego’s first directorial credit, but she previously collaborated with Ciro Guerra as producer on The Embrace of the Serpent and The Wind Journeys. This new film retains the ethnographic aspect of those two, but this time it’s folded into an apocalyptic crime epic, unfolding over a decade and a half in Colombia. Great visuals, and an operatic sweep to the narrative. Well worth checking out.
What could have been a somewhat familiar narrative about the decade-long corruption of a Colombian clan that becomes involved in the narcotics business, Birds is given fresh texture and detail by interweaving those story beats with the unique symbols and rituals of the indigenous Wayuu community of coastal northern Colombia, and how these singular cultural characteristics governing the interactions between clans and within families shape the more universal human failings of greed, pride, and wrath. The film follows Rapayet, a Wayuu trader, as he uses the marijuana smuggling trade to gain the resources necessary to marry into a powerful clan, which follows him headfirst into a drug business that becomes increasingly complicated and bloody to navigate even as it eats away at the foundation of their culture.
Guerra and Gallego should be especially commended for the way the film handles the Wayuu and their society and avoids several pitfalls a less interesting film would have stumbled into headfirst. The filmmakers don't reduce the Wayuu characters' agency in their entanglement with the outside world, neither pandering by making Rapayet and his family out to be the innocent victims of global capitalism and nonsensical Western drug policy nor indulging any fatalism about the inevitability of virtuous native cultures being undermined by contact with Western civilization. Instead, the focus remains on the choices and failings of individual characters, from Rapayet's naked open ambitions to his partner's lack of restraint and the family matriarch's willingness to bend and manipulate the dictates of her culture to reap the benefits of her son-in-law's trade. The film's matter-of-fact treatment of its subjects also depicts their fascinating customs and traditions without over-exoticizing them or putting the Wayuu's way of life on a pedestal, as many American films about indigenous people have done to their detriment. Those customs and traditions — and their violation — also complicate the expected conflicts enough that the inevitably violent power struggles are never as predictable or trite as they could have been.
The visuals are remarkable, from the colorful and kinetic coming of age ceremony that opens the film to the surreal mayhem of the family's ultimate downfall, with appearances by the titular birds — real and imagined — a regular occurrence. Among the best of a very good year for me.
Side note: Guerra and Gallego (longtime producer of Guerra's films and first-time co-director with Birds) attended the screening I saw in Telluride, and noted offhandedly that they had divorced since beginning work on this film; it appears that she's not involved with his currently-filming adaptation of J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. It's impossible to know how to apportion credit in dual-directorial efforts like this (or producing/directing partnerships, for that matter), but if their careers have now permanently separated as well, I hope Gallego gets the opportunity to direct on her own so we can find out.