Birds of Passage (2018)

Mill Valley Film Festival

Directors: Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra
Screenwriter: Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal
Cast: Carmiña Martínez, John Narváez, José Acosta, Natalia Reyes, José Vicente Cotés
Cinematographer: David Gallego
2018, Colombia, Denmark, Mexico
Running Time: 125 minutes
MPAA: Not rated
Wayuu and Spanish with English subtitles
IMDb link
Official Site

“Birds of Passage” is a true story and a compelling one. Set in Colombia, it tells of the clash that results when outside drug traffickers impose capitalist property relations on an ancient and centuries-old indigenous culture.

In the early 1980s, when I as living in Washington, D.C., I knew a Colombian-born woman—“Maritza.” Maritza’s niche job with a Latino NGO had her flying hither and thither, on serial junkets to attend all-expense—paid workshops.

One day we had this conversation:

Me: Can you meet with me on Thursday?

Maritza : Absolutely not.

Me: Why not?

Maritza: I’m having anxiety attacks about my mother’s grave.

Me: What? Why?

Maritza: A year ago, it was the anniversary of my mother’s death. In Colombia, on that date, you are supposed to return to your relatives’ graves to exhume and clean their remains. I am way overdue and must get there ASAP.

I wondered to myself, “If you don’t, what’s the worst that can happen?”

Birds of Passage supplied the answer, and appropriately so: for members of the Wayuu tribe in the Guajira desert region of northern Colombia, birds are the messengers of the spirits.

A little over a decade following my conversation with Maritza, I learned something else about Colombian graves: they have become a cheap source of ancient artifacts, which indigenous people call “seeds,” and international art speculators call “lucrative.” In Birds of Passage, there is a scene depicting a version of the ancestor worship ritual that Maritza had made passing reference to so many years ago; only those engaging in it are not Latino denizens of the Tidal Basin glitterati, but members of the Wayuu tribe. For them, ceremonial exhumation is not unlike the weddings and funerals depicted in the film, “The Godfather,” where who shows up carries social and political weight, parlayed from the burial site to impact day to day business protocol. Maritza, whose ancestors fell more into the comprador than the strictly indigenous category, is what the Wayuu would call an “Alijuna” (an outsider). Rafayet (José Acosta), the Alijuna in Birds of Passage, wants to marry into the Pushaina clan, and is therefore under heavy manners to prove himself worthy of the Socorro [succor], not to mention amparo [shelter], conferred by the Wayuu’s good name.

Indigenous drug trafficking and grave robbing became allied industries during what Colombians call the Bonanza Marimbera era of the 1960s-1980s. Can you name a TV series or film made in last three decades in or about South America that doesn’t have the drug trade as its controlling argument? Yet, not a single one delves into how marijuana became the cash crop grown, processed, and transported by indigenous tribes under the oversight of narco-latifundists. Birds of Passage tells that story.

The film is divided into five cantos. The first opens on the desert expanse of Guajira, far from the more cosmopolitan Bogotá or Medellin. We like to think of the Greeks as having been the first to create female stage characters who embody the historical transition from the matriarchy to the early stages of class society. This was the era during which matriarchal clans were gradually supplanted by the patriarchal family—“familus” having been the Latin word meaning “the number of slaves owned by one man.” Ursula Pushaina (Carmiña Martínez) comes from a line predating the Greek dramatis personae. In her we find that rare twentieth century woman who represents both the survivals of an earlier form of social organization, as well as the last holdout before there occurs a definitive shift in power from women to men.

Ursula sings the first canto. It transmits a cautionary message that is also a paean to the matrilineal clan. In her song, she names all the important female family members. The only men whose names she invokes are consanguine relations: uncles and nephews. She does not name fathers or sons. A shepherd then intones that before his footprints are forever erased from the sands of time, he is obligated to tell the story of what befell the Wayuu.

The care with which the Matriarch Ursula prepares her daughter, the reluctant debutante Zaida (Natalia Reyes), for the rite of passage into womanhood, conveys that this Wayuu family is fully invested in Zaida’s exchange value, and its potential to attract a suitable mate for her. Zaida emerges from her bohio with blood-smeared cheeks. She performs the Yonna, a ritual dance of quick bird-like steps. Her red head covering billows out across an expanse of plain where fellow tribe members stand in a semi-circle. Rafayet requests to dance with her, whereupon she leads and he follows. There is no trace of Old World machismo in this New World actuation. The couple is firmly but gently upstaged by the Matriarch Ursula, who at every important plot turn intervenes with deft precision to tutor and test the Alijuna Rafayet, to ascertain whether his comportment meshes seamlessly with the ways of the Wayuu.

“Bride price” is mistranslated as “dowry” in the film’s English subtitles. It is a seriously ahistorical error. The English word “dowry” refers to money that parents of a bride pay to parents of a groom. In the case of this matriarchal clan, the payment goes in the opposite direction: from the groom’s to the bride’s family.

The bride price is negotiated by Ursula. She demands that it be paid not with money, but animals: horses, bulls, goats, cows, and sheep. Farmhands will shepherd the entire menagerie across the plain to the bohio dwelling of the bride’s family. It is a scene that is both magnificent and at the same time jarring, when you consider that the suitor Rafayet’s every aspect shows him to be a bird of another feather, a migrant from a more urbane perch. (It would not surprise you to see him show up in the next episode of the David Simon TV series, “The Deuce,” also set in the bonanza era, but in New York’s Times Square.)

By contrast, Ursula is a timeless figure, adamantine in stature and mien. Men, boys, women, and girls defer to her. She delivers terse warnings and recitations of Talmudic-sounding regulations that govern intra and inter-clan etiquette appropriate for any and all occasions. At a certain point you might wonder whether she makes them up as she goes, because much of what she responds to falls strictly within the narco-trafficking domain. That’s precisely where she begins losing ground, and anachronisms begin surfacing in bold relief.

We know one thing for sure: Rafayet cannot afford the bride price, but his will is stoic. He accepts the challenge. Now he will walk a tightrope stretching from the distant past, with its litany of archaic rules, to an unruly and chaos-driven future.

The arrival of a gaggle of U. S. Peace Corps volunteers foretells that future. The plausible reason for their presence is a (Sargent Shriver-headed) mission to spread anti-communist propaganda throughout the region. They are additionally tasked with more compelling if discreet orders of the day: As the cat’s paw for U.S.-based drug traffickers, they are a mod-style version of the prohibition-era bootlegging gambit that generated the Kennedy Clan fortune. Shriver dons its liberal enlightenment mask in the aftermath of the massive “Yanqui go home!” demonstrations across the continent that mobbed his brother-in-law, then-President John F. Kennedy. The youthful prospectors are on a double-blind date in search of markets and sources for the drug trade’s cheap feed stock—marijuana.

Moisés (Jhon Narvaez), Rafayet’s best friend, is the antithesis of the Wayuu. An Afro-Colombian, outfitted in last year’s chains and half-buttoned shirts, he sniffs opportunity in the gringo volunteers’ smug appeals to hook them up. Willing to go to great lengths to impress them, he tags along as Rafayet liases with an uncle to scare up enough marijuana to supply demand in a configuration where drug trade conventions overrule those of the Wayuu.

The families have operated as separate and self-sufficient units up to this point, following Wayuu rules of engagement when the need to consult arises. In this new alijuna sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll setup, the families have come to a crossroads. With each new opportunity to enrich themselves, they must decide whether to break their hidebound tradition by joining forces, and if they do, whether to follow or violate key tenets of the Wayuu code. The circumstances they face are so disruptive and unfamiliar that at times, they find themselves going by both sets of rules, and living with the contradictions that follow. Moisés, in his lust for the fast buck, flouts Wayuu etiquette and unwittingly sets into motion a chain of unfortunate events that forever erases the footprints that mark the ancestors’ path.

The foreseeable future challenges the past. It rolls in on Ford SUVs provisioned with state-of-the art ordnance. No need to scrutinize the weapons. Every page in this playbook bears the stamp “Made in USA.”

Blond, blue-eyed lay-about Peace Corps scouts scour lakeside bars for contacts. Then they flock to the shoreline to dip their toes like wading birds into seductively calm lake waters. (Remember those Swiss nude bathers in the film, “Bread and Chocolate”? These are their Yank cousins in wheat jeans.) When one of them hands Moisés a flyer and shouts “Down with Communism!” he answers with the sardonic cry, “Down with Communism! CAPITALISM!” For once in his no-count life, he has found what he may suspect is a vain hope—but hope nonetheless—in what the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin identified as “imperialism, capitalism’s pinnacle stage.” Perhaps Moisés intuits that this vein will only last long enough to spirit him from the bottom of the gaggle’s dung pile to its mediocre middle. What he is about to discover is that it too is a bride with a price.

Viewers will need a strong stomach to make it to the finish line. The matriarch’s ancient homilies will score authenticity points for the spirituality cohort. Those who lean toward the historical materialist view welcoming advances brought by the Europeans, while decrying the brutality that attends them, will get to see exactly what Karl Marx was writing about. As it becomes clear that the new source of Wayuu enrichment is controlled by the ultimate Alijuna—U.S. drug kingpins, it is self-evident to everyone except Ursula that her invocations no longer serve any purpose other than to assure her that she has been correct in her practice. She is the guardian of the flame who keeps the home fires burning, even when home is a highly inflammable bohio in a world increasingly immersed in concrete. Her admirable charisma in Canto I, has turned itself into a conceit hobbled by pathos by the time Canto IV arrives to bring up the rear.

Over the course of two decades marked by the maturation of two grandchildren, a new vehicle has insinuated itself, and it comes with a factory-installed braking system remotely controlled by the alijuna drug lords. Antiquities fans take note: The Wayuu family’s genial factotum is revealed to have been a Medellin thug all along, with the full knowledge of his Wayuu boss, Rafayet’s uncle. Modernist concrete compounds replace bohios, and the desert plain affords a perfect landing strip homonym for a different kind of plane—U.S. built to transport drugs and the arms that embrace them.

“Birds of Passage” is the English translation of the Spanish title “Pájaros de verano” [Birds of Summer]. As a Spanish-to-English translator, I pondered the choice of “passage” over “summer.” The omens transmitted by the avian spirit messengers are good or evil, and David Gallego’s bird images locate both behaviors in the stunning creatures’ expressions and poses. That the translator chose “passage” over “summer” is puzzling. Could it be that the qualitative transition during the twenty-year Bonanza Marimbera period is like a hot season followed by a colder one, impelling the birds to take flight? Capitalist vultures have stripped the land and its inhabitants of all that they hold sacred, leaving only carnage and pillaged graves next to trucks loaded with kilos of marijuana. Man, woman, and beast disappear from a sacred region bereft of the honor that could only camouflage its fading glories until there came a change that, as the first canto recounts, left no trace of its curatorial ancestors.

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.