I recently had the chance to take part in a roundtable interview with the directors of Birds of Passage, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra. The film tells the story of a clan of indigenous people in Columbia who become involved with the drug trade, bringing ruin to their traditional values.
Q: You’re telling a story of indigenous people who have had their values compromised by outsiders. How do you gain the trust of those indigenous people to let you tell their story?
Cristina Gallego: We shot a film there in north Columbia twelve years ago, and we shot one week in that territory. Many people came and told us the story that happened many years ago. That history hasn’t been told and hasn’t been represented even by them. It seemed important for them in the Wayúu community and the way we treated them, they were open to tell us they history, about their community, their rules. And I think with our previous film, Embrace of the Serpent, which was set in the Amazonian community was a help.
For this film the particular process was we made the research and we wrote about the history based on the particulars that they are telling us. We wrote the script and it was corrected by an anthropologist from there. And something that happened also, you may see them very strange or closed, and they are closed but they are open also. And this particular Wayúu community is used to being closed, but they deal with people from the outside. So we came to tell a story that would be not just about them but with them. Thirty percent of the crew were Wayúu people—they worked in direction and in the acting. We were being respectful all the time. We were wanting to learn from them.
Q: Could you tell us a bit about the spiritual nature? I think their value system has a spiritual basis, which includes nature and various other things. How would define the Wayúu spirituality we get to see a glimpse of in the film?
Cristina Gallego: Before I arrived to work with them, I thought it might be similar, but it’s not similar. They are very different in the way that they work with the spiritual world. In the Wayúu society they have connection with the spiritual, but the spirituality is very grounded in the territory. They are one of the most traditional, but at the same time one of the most capitalistic societies.
Ciro Guerra: For them the main gods are the rain. They have a god for the wind. They have a god for the thunder, the fire. But for them, the women are the ones who are in contact with the spiritual world. In dreams they are visited by the spirits of their ancestors. So they have a strong relationship with the dead. And they come back and visit them in dreams, and they follow their advice to make decisions.
Q: Columbia is a Catholic country, the cemetery is filled with crosses, and many of the names are Christian names. What is the Catholic influence?
Ciro Guerra: There were missions—Capuchin missions a hundred years ago. In Columbia the Catholic Church was very connected to the state so in many places the only way they could get an actual identity was to have a Christian name which was given by the Catholic Church in the baptism records. There’s some influence of that. They take some elements, but mostly they follow their traditions.
Birds keep coming back during the film and are some of the messengers. Could you talk about how much those birds meant? It was often what they looked for—what bird are they going to see at this point, which ties into the title, of course.
Cristine Gallego: Their relation with the birds is a connection not only with the Catholic world but with other myths and other cultures that used it. The birds are like the Holy Spirit, and like the Egyptian god Horus, and the relation with the messenger is important. The representation of the animals in early period are the eagle and the condor. This relation with the messenger brings information from the other world of things that are going to happen. This is the basis of the mythology for the Wayúu.