“If there’s family, there’s respect.
If there’s respect, there’s honor.
If there’s honor, there’s word.
If there’s word, there’s peace.”
Among the Wagúu people of northern Columbia, family is the basis for everything. If that is not cared for, step by step, all values will erode until society falls apart. In Birds of Passage, Columbia’s official entry for Oscar consideration (which made the shortlist prior to nominations), we watch as a family disintegrates over a period of years from the 1960s through 1980s because the values were not adhered to.
The story centers on Rapayet (José Acosta), a young man who seeks to marry Zaida (Natalia Reyes). Zaida’s mother Ursula (Carmiña Martinez) is unsure of Rapayet because he does business with the alijunas (outsiders, anyone not Wagúu). He is asked to provide a sizable dowry if he is to marry Zaida. While he is off working to raise the dowry, he finds some young American Peace Corps workers wanting some marijuana. When he goes to a cousin and convinces him that pot (which grows wild on his land) would be a more lucrative crop than coffee, a drug enterprise is born. Soon Raypayet and his alijuna partner Moisés have developed contacts and are involved in smuggling to the US. The scope of the business grows through the years, becoming more violent. Moisés does not follow the Wagúu values and his lack of respect for them starts the process that will eventually lead to bloodshed and ruin.
The story is told in a series of Cantos (songs) which mark off time periods. Along the way the guns, vehicles, houses of those involved become more upscale. And we see that the younger generation who have grown up with these new riches are separated from the traditions of their people. Ursula, who is the clan matriarch and keeper of the tradition, tries to pass on the values and mythology, but they younger people just aren’t interested.
This is a film with spiritual and mythological aspects. Within the Wagúu culture dreams, ghosts, and birds often bring messages and warnings. Ursula seeks to interpret those messages, but is often viewed as outmoded—an archaic remnant of old ways that others think unimportant. This serves as a rejection of the spiritual life of the community—abandoning the way of their ancestors for the riches of the world.
How do we look at the relationship of societal values and the health or potential ruin of our own society? I often hear people decrying the changes that have taken place as being the end of civilization as we know it because we have departed from our values. But I also note that such a conclusion may come from any number of directions—liberal, conservative, religious, secular. There are those who believe every ill in society comes from removing prayer from public schools. There are those who would blame the state of the world on the Military Industrial Complex. For some it might be the mixing of races, allowing same sex marriage, or corporate greed. Some would say we need a wall on our southern border and travel bans from Muslim countries to protect our values from outsiders (alijunas). Others believe those things are the destruction of our values dealing with welcoming those who seek a good life and freedom.
We constantly struggle not only to live by our values, but also to understand just what those values are and what they are founded upon. And I think we should also come to understand that values may evolve with the times. I think this film brings an important message that we need to pay attention to our values as we make our way in the world. We may not always have the same values, but being true to the values we cherish will be an important part of finding peace and joy.
Photos courtesy of The Orchard