Depicting the burgeoning drug trade in Colombia from the 1960s through to the late 1970s from the perspective of an indigenous tribe, the Wayuu, Birds of Passage is split into five chapters (or songs as they are called here). Highlighting the way that songs are a way traditions are passed down from generation to generation. Each song goes into a different time period and theme.
Rather than focussing on the drugs and their effects, this is a tribal tale of family and responsibilities, of the honour that is such a large part of the Wayuu way of living. Using this method means that we get thorough character development as we watch them grow and change as their business rises and falls.
It isn’t all plain sailing as with the increase in wealth the inevitable power struggles begin. Combined with a plethora of attitudes and an adherence to historic Wayuu rules of engagement and how to deal with people provides for plenty of obstacles to be overcome. The business developments are slow to come about and when they do move forwards they are invariably glossed over in favour of focusing on the personal developments and the effects on the tribe.
Looking beyond the business of drug trade, the family and tribal stories, whilst interesting and complex, aren’t as impactful as they could have been. The choice to give the drug trade a secondary billing over the tribal developments, for good and bad, leads to Birds of Passage seeming somewhat sombre at times and a little bit restricted in its outlook, only punctuated with moments of excitement and advancement.
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Nominally central to this story is Rapayet (José Acosta) as he begins by winning the hand and paying an elaborate dowry to have the honour of marrying Zaida (Natalia Reyes). Through his work to gather the dowry, and connections with outsider Moises (Jhon Narváez), Rapayet is then able to put his plans in place to trade the drugs which are grown by his farmer relative. However, for all the impetus being made by Rapayet it is Ursula (Carmina Martínez) who is the person who gives the story its structure. She is the real believer and enforcer of the Wayuu ways above all else and it is this honour that gives the tribe their issues with their new business and restricts the ability to expand as Rapayet and Moises want to.
With the astounding and at times bleak locations of the Wayuu, cinematographer David Gallego brings this harsh existence to life and makes you feel part of the tribe as issues are discussed and pacts made. The performances from all feel natural and of the time, owing a great deal to the wardrobe and production design, and this serves well to place Birds of Passage perfectly in its intended timeframe but also giving the scenes involving the Wayuu tribe a very authentic feel.
Being co-directed by Ciro Guerra (director of Embrace of the Serpent) and Cristina Gallego (producer of Embrace of the Serpent), it does feel like there is a slight split in the narrative, between the tribe and drugs trade, that never really resolves.
Birds of Passage will be released in the UK at a later date.