Understanding the Colombian drug trafficking and its origins is a complicated and complex story, but one that is usually told from the outside making heroes of the drug lords or showing up the American need for meting justice. Instead, Birds of Passageis told from the inside—a view of the Wayúu indigenous people from northern Colombia who find themselves caught up in the lucrative and violent game of a drug trade that challenges their native traditions and family honor. If you’re like me and had no idea about how this destructive and shameful business began, then this film will enlighten you.
Directed by Cristina Callego and Ciro Guerra, this film is set in the period of 1968 to 1980, a time referred to by the indigenous peoples as “Bonanza Marimbera,” in the Guajira region and specifically in the Wayúu tribe. The tribe’s matriarch, Ursula (Carmiña Martínez) has a “coming out” ceremony for her daughter, the beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes), who enters into a mating ritual dance called The Yonnawith Rapayet (JoséAcosta). He obtains the dowry by entering into a deal with his cousin, Anibal (Juan Bautista Martínez), a grower of marijuana in order to sell it to some young anti-communist Americans of the Peace Corp looking for the drug. Coming out of the American experience of the Woodstock era of free love, drugs, and anti-establishment, these young people find that their American money can buy them a good time. As Rapayet and his friend Moisés (John Narváez) look on, Moisés comments, “Weed is the world’s happiness.” To which Rapayet answers, “It’s their happiness,” not knowing the trouble that would come as a result of his newfound business deals.
As time goes by, Rapayet and Moisés become rich on their dealings to American businessmen who stock up their goods onto prop planes to bring back to the United States, the fueling the race to grow and harvest the world’s illegal goods. This race for providing merchandise only brings greater greed for power and wealth. Moisés loses his sense of self when he murders the American dealers because they have been doing business with others besides them. This act of violence sets off a series of murderous rampages to the point that in order to hold to the Wayuu family traditions, Rapayet must eliminate Moisés. From a moral perspective, violence only begets more violence, as is displayed so cruelly in this film. Rapayet kills his friend Moisés for murdering his cousin Anibal’s brother and workers with whom they were partners. Anibal seeks revenge.
Ursula strives to keep the family together, which is an essential tribal belief that the family is above all business, as she emphasized to Rapayet when he married her daughter. As hard as she tries to maintain honor, respect, and peace, she too is caught up in the conflict of familial honor and desire for increased wealth.
Photo used with permission of The Orchard. All rights reserved.
Rapayet and his family, including his mother-in-law Ursula, have all moved into a large white mid-century style mansion situated in the dustbowl in the middle of nowhere. This stark contrast of structure to the simple wood and clay huts of the tribal people offers a reflection on the loneliness of wealth. They moved away from the village to create their own little oasis, one that proves the more one ignores one’s ancestry the more destructive life will become. Leonidas (Greider Meza), Zaida’s brother, grows up to become an impulsive and spoiled young man, to the point that he degrades his own humanity and those of others by his public display of drunkenness and violence. When he flaunts his wealth at the grave exhumation ceremony of Anibal’s brother by giving a man a sack of money if he ate dog excrement and insulting Anibal’s daughter, his own humanity is compromised. Anibal wants compensation by having Leonidas work in his fields, only to realize that he violates an even greater prized possession. This leads to full-out tribal war.
All the while throughout the story the ghost of the grandmother is seen through Zaida’s dreams. Her grandmother proclaims, “The sacrifice has been made but there’s still sorrow.” No amount of money can buy a sense of humanity—the soul of the person who has lost their connection with the past, with their ancestors. Even Ursula loses her sense of the family past when she protects the wayward Leonidas and takes her daughter and grandchildren away from Rapayet who has fled from his home away from the wrath of Anibal.
Zaida (Natalia Reyes) in Birds of Passage. Photo used with permission of The Orchard. All rights reserved.
Greed becomes a beast that awakens in the heart of the indigenous tribe of the Wayúu. Their humanity is compromised because of the greed for wealth and power. No one suspected the consequences of such an act but there was no turning back. Revenge takes its full course and leaves a land scarred and villages decimated. That is the truth of violence in every time and place. It does not solve conflict but only leaves a people and place scorched, longing for a sense of humanity to return to their tattered lives. This brilliantly shot and amazing film tells a story of how a global epidemic of violence began leaving us to wonder if it will ever end or if the beast of greed that has been awakened will eventually consume villages, peoples, nations, and continents. It is a sobering film in which the birds are messengers of the consequences to our actions. The dance of Zaida at the beginning of the film portrays her in a bird-like position with her arms outstretched unaware of what is to come. As in the native cultures, birds symbolize the retribution that will come, the time of reckoning, which is ultimately death, something no human being can escape. The question for us is: Will it be a time of peace or of violence? Of serenity in how we have lived our lives in selflessness or of fear of losing our grip on power and wealth? Now that’s a sobering thought!
Birds of Passage can be that catalyst for change. Not that any of us can control the global drug trade but we can change our violent-prone hearts for family traditions that promote self-giving love, generosity, integrity, and faith. Only then will we be truly happy and blessed people, something no amount of money or power can ever give. This film begs for our reflection and meditation upon our drug-induced society and the greed that feeds it.