Birds of Passage: A Narco Tale That Redefines The Gangster Genre
*Any observations about Wayuu culture and its peoples are based solely on how Birds of Passage portrays them.
The story of rapacious capitalism is foretold in song before it is shown in Birds of Passage as a Wayuu shepherd looks out onto the vast and mummified landscape of the Guajira desert. Narrating in song, he tells the story of a family that would upend traditions and desecrate their ancestors as they entered modernity through the gates of narcotrafficking.
Birds of Passage (2018) is told in five cantos (songs) spanning from 1960 to 1980. The cantos give the film an epic-like narration that engenders swift movement through time. The backdrop is the expansive nothingness of the Guajira desert in northeastern Colombia. The Wayuu peoples are its inhabitants and have protected their lands for centuries from pirates, colonizers, and the Colombian nation-state. This film considers the precarious and resilient nature of Wayuu culture as it encounters the drug economy—the newest iteration of an outside force that threatens tradition.
The matrilineal society of the Wayuu subverts traditional narco-gangster films where women are postscripts to brash displays of machismo. And the violence of a narco economy is given breadth and depth as a perspective––rendered invisible by Hollywood depictions of narcotrafficking––finds a voice in directors Ciro Guerra and Natalia Gallego’s rendering of the bonanza marimbera (marijuana boom) that burgeoned throughout Colombia as the demand for marijuana increased in the United States in the 70s and 80s.
While Birds of Passage chronicles the cataclysmic demise of the Pushainas family—one of many Wayuu clans—the film begins with tradition. Zaida (Natalia Reyes) has just completed a year spent in confinement, a Wayuu custom where a girl transitions into womanhood. Ursula (Carmiña Martínez), Zaida’s mother and head of the Pushainas clan, upholds the matriarchal archetype as guardian of the family talisman, interpreter of dreams, and bearer of Wayuu customs. Her name, a nod to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s matriarch in One Hundred Years of Solitude, is not the only gesture that evokes elements of magical realism; dreams and animals are augurs interpreted by Wayuu women, seeding premonitions of discomforting fate. But magical realism, a term readily used by critics to describe Birds of Passage, is a misnomer that risks exoticizing Wayuu culture and undermining the absurdity of narcotrafficking.
Ursula prepares Zaida for her return to society, reminding her, “The family, the grandmother, the mother, the uncle, the nephew, the grandson are represented in the hand’s fingers so that the Wayuu won’t forget his origin. If there is family, there’s respect. If there’s respect, there is honor. If there is honor, there is word. If there is word, there’s peace.” Word messengers are consecrated people in Wayuu culture, entrusted with shepherding messages between clans. Their importance in preserving peace is pronounced during periods of turmoil and internal fighting where words are intended to antecede actions. But the power of words is put to trial as narcotrafficking, with its diplomacy of violence, takes root.
Zaida’s scarlet ceremonial garb punctuates the desiccated landscape of the Guajira desert as she stands surrounded by Wayuu peoples. Arms extended, Zaida charges Raphayet (Jose Acosta) with aplomb, her patagium membrane of fabric billows as she flies towards him, her feet deftly shuffling through dried soil. A dance, a ceremony of courtship, marks her coming-of-age as Raphayet whispers “you are my woman” into her ear.
As an orphaned Wayuu, Raphayet grew up amongst alijunas (non-Wayuu people, foreigners). Ursula mistrusts him, fearing that his alijuna upbringing has corrupted him, and places a large dowery on Zaida. A resourceful Raphayet and his alijuna childhood friend Moncho (Jhon Narváez) meet Peace Corps hippies fighting communism and searching for weed. Raphayet and Mocho establish a marijuana supply chain between Americans with planes and Ursula’s cousin Aníbal (Juan Martínez), subsidizing Raphayet’s dowery. And while marijuana gives Raphayet a clan with family and honor, it is not long before Wayuu taboos are broken and blood is shed on sacred lands.
Managing the supply chain from Aníbal to the Gringos becomes a family affair headed by Ursula and Raphayet. As the growing demand for marijuana scales their production, the boundary separating Wayuu from alijunas is dismantled. Cars and guns become endemic to a landscape once characterized by horses and livestock. Gold watches adorn wrists. Manicured fingers emphasize subtle changes as Western clothing trends do not replace Wayuu garb. Narco wealth begets violence that begets revenge—tropes of gangster-narco films. But killing spawned by reckless behavior is often offscreen, and the viewer is left with the detritus of violence and the ululating sounds of collective mourning.
The baleful effect of narcotrafficking is the erosion of Wayuu customs within the Pushainas clan. The encounter between Wayuu and alijuna culture echoes Embrace of the Serpent, lamenting capitalistic greed as it corrupts centuries of traditions. The Pushainas vernacular architecture, seamless in aesthetic, is replaced by a modernist mansion that looks obtuse as its unadorned cement walls stand alone in an expanding landscape. The mansion is simultaneously a symbol of power and vulnerability as the solitude of its fortitude is exposed and can be spotted from miles away.
Birds of Passage is characterized by shots that linger on the landscape. Cinematographic stasis rejects the kinetic movement often portrayed in gangster films (think Uncut Gems), imbuing Birds of Passage with an aesthetic evocative of a National Geographic spread. Critics have called this film an ethnographic drama. While Wayuu culture is on display (to the foreign viewer), describing this film as ethnographic conflates a milieu that is foreign to narco-gangster films and the Pushainas’ story for an entire culture.
I wonder if the attention critics gave to ethnography and magical realism in their descriptions of Birds of Passage are appropriate. Or is it succumbing to the seductiveness of exoticizing the Other? And in doing so, overlooking the tragic absurdity of modernity that the film successfully reflects back to the viewer. By placing the violence of capitalist modernity in a new context, its absurdity is on full display, laid bare for the viewer to see what we are often blinded to noticing.
Gabriel García Márquez said, “The trouble is that many people believe that I’m a writer of fantastic fiction, when actually I’m a very realistic person and write what I believe is the true socialist realism.” More than an ethnographic drama filled with magical realism, Birds of Passage depicts the social realism of “a story about wild grass that came as a savior, but destroyed like locus” to quote the Wayuu shepherd whose song will be sung by the birds long after his words are gone.
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