In American television and film, the Latin American drug wars are mostly understood to be full of barbaric violence stemming from a culture that encourages it. There is little room for nuance that might paint a more complex narrative.
Colombian drama Birds of Passage, directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, follows the early years of the drug trade in Colombia from the mid-1960s to late 1970s, told through generations of a Wayúu family — an indigenous people native to the northern part of the country. While the film is about the drug trade, it’s also about what happens when greed and corruption infiltrate a family and infect the whole bloodline. As Guerra puts it, “This is not about turning criminals into heroes, but exploring what savage, untamed capitalism has done to our soul, to the spirit of our people.”
The film opens with Zaida (Natalia Reyes) ceremonially entering womanhood, performing a ritual mating dance — la yonna — with suitor Rapayet (José Acosta), a quiet and brooding man. It’s a mesmerizing scene that kicks off an epic story that sprawls across both families (and eventually the one they make with each other). Rapayet finds he can make good money in the drug business, but what starts off as selling a couple kilos of weed to American Peace Corps volunteers escalates into a more lucrative, and inevitably violent business, much to the dismay of his mother-in-law and tribal matriarch Ursula (Carmiña Martínez). Rapayet is pulled between his family and Wayúu traditions, and the intoxicating power and wealth that comes from working with the alijunas (non-indigenous people). The more money, the more blood, and the more blood, the less family they have left. When a line is crossed with another drug-trading family, a war ensues, in which both parties know there is no real victory.
Like any movie about the drug trade, Birds of Passage is a violent film, but the violence isn’t gratuitous or swaggering, with bodies shot up just for the sake of it. There isn’t a surplus of lavish party scenes with naked women as accessories. The money is abundant and so are its rewards, but it’s revered. No one is happy. Even after Rapayet has acquired wealth for his family, their slick modern house stands in the middle of the desert, alone.
The acting is strong, especially from Martínez, who plays Ursula with the protective stoicism of a woman completely dedicated to her family. But the film’s cinematography stands out the most, using the expanse of the setting to its fullest extent. The Guajira Peninsula, where the movie is set, ranges between dry and windy desert, and lush tropics by the water. Colors are used strategically, employing the bright red of clothing or blood to contrast the beige expanse.
It’s clear how much care and research went into the movie and its depiction of the Wayúu culture, which is refreshing, considering how little time and energy has historically been put into indigenous stories. Gallego stated that 30 percent of the crew working on the film were Wayúu and that the filmmakers spent years researching the history of not just the drug trade, but the mythology, music, clothing, and language of the Wayúu. Though there is some Spanish and English sprinkled in, most of the film is spoken in Wayuunaiki.
Irreparable damage has been done by the many two-dimensional depictions of the Latin American drug trade. So many stereotypes and caricatures have characterized Latin drug lords as either heartless savages or revered masterminds. But Birds of Passage tells a different story, way more complex, and compelling, than its predecessors.