It is hard to find a Colombian story that is not about drugs, but it would be too simple to call Birds of Passage a drama about the drug trade. Based on real events and set among the Wayúu people during a crucial period in recent Colombian history, between the mid-60s and the early 80s. The film explores the ravages of the drug trade on the country’s indigenous people. Director Ciro Guerra and producer Cristina Gallego, the award-winning team behind 2015’s Embrace of the Serpent, a film that defied any genre, are telling this story in five cantos (songs) based on the ancient hymns of the Colombian tribes.
Rapayet (José Acosta), called Rafa by his friends, is a young man in love – or lust – with Zaida (Natalia Reyes). His culture and the tribe’s powerful matriarch Ursula (Carmiña Martínez) who also happens to be his prospective mother-in-law, as well as his uncle Peregrino demand that he come up with a dowry. Strapped for cash he stumbles upon a marijuana deal when a bunch of hippie foreigners asks for drugs on the beach. The deal is successful, Rapayet marries Zaida and tries to live a quiet life in the desert with his family. But opportunity and his loose-cannon cousin seduce him into going deeper into the drug trade with the Alijuñas, the outsiders and traveling back and forth between the desert and the mountains. Getting used to the wealth, not even the most fervent traditionalists in his clan can avoid being drawn into the luxurious life the trade affords them. But as they begin to ignore the omens, they all get caught up in a conflict where honor is the highest currency and debts are paid with blood. We follow the characters through five chapters that are headlined by the songs.
Spanning almost 20 years, this saga is about a deadly cycle of revenge that spirals out of control. It also shows the striking difference between an isolated and isolationist society and colonization that inadvertently leads to tragedy. It takes a strong stomach to get all the way to the end of the film, but the characters take us on a journey of change and not just in the culture and story: Rapayet, not instantly likable in the beginning, undergoes a transformation, as do Ursula and Zaida, if in the opposite direction. The most interesting parts of the film are not just the epic way it is told – with birds serving as messengers that need to be heard to make the right decisions and follow the ancient rules of the spirits – but also the history behind it: the Colombians call the era between 1960-1980 Bonanza Marimbera. It was when indigenous drug-trafficking and grave robbery became money-making industries that ended up destroying the culture and replaced ancient loyalties with greed. While we have seen Narcos and countless other films and TV series that delve into the cocaine trade, Birds of Passage is the first of its kind that tells how marijuana became a large cash business, overseen by foreigners and being told with magical realism through a deeply human story.