Birds of Passage tells the story of the origins of the Colombian drug trade in ways that have not been explored before. Seen through eyes of an indigenous Wayuu family that becomes involved in the growing industry of selling drugs to American youth, Passage speaks of a world of honor, power and greed. However, as the drug trade increases, war breaks out between families in a way that threatens their lives and cultural traditions.
With the popularity of Narcos and Loving Pablo, there appears to be a great deal of interest in the rise of the Columbian drug trade in recent years. Thankfully though, Passage breathes new life into the genre. Directed by Cristina Gallego and her husband Ciro Guerra, Passage discusses the very origins of the drug trade from the perspective of the Wayuu tribe in a way that emphasizes the impact it had on the families and traditions of the region. Despite the fact that they live in an area rich with opportunity and resources, the Wayuu do not benefit from the big businesses of the outsiders (or alijuna). As tensions mount between them, the Wayuu—lead by cocky young Raphayet (Jose Acosta)—become increasingly disinterested in following the rules imposed upon them and they begin to look for other sources of income. (Incidentally, you will never look at the Peace Corps the same way again.)
What’s more, while the film features strong performances from the men in the film, it’s the women that truly stand out in this piece. Whereas most films about the Columbian drug trade often puts the emphasis on masculine dominance, Passage allows the women to roar with a ferocity that brings balance to the storytelling. Strong characters such as Pushaina (Carmina Martinez) and Zaida (Natalia Reyes) speak to the power of the female voice in the family in a way that also challenges stereotypes established in other entries into the genre.
Told in five chapters that span from the 1960s-80s,Passagespeaks to the tensions between keeping traditions in the midst of progress. By telling the story through the lens of the Wayuu, Gallego and Guerra utilize the drug trade as a window to explore its impact on the indigenous community and their way of life. By demonstrating the damage and tensions created amongst the Wayuu way of life, Passage manages to focus the conversation around the drug trade in a more intimate manner. The danger here is more than the threat upon their lives. Instead, the greatest threat is to their community and way of life. As the family becomes increasingly caught up within the power and madness associated with the drug trade, the conflict that erupts is often internal. As the momentum builds, Raphayet and his family find themselves caught between what is necessary to maintain their power and who they are. While the term ‘bird of passage’ refers to those who move freely from place to place (more specifically, as drug runners), the film also demonstrates the desire to hold onto the more static identity of tradition.
With strong performances and a smart script, Bird of Passage provides a refreshing spin on a familiar genre. Directors Gallego and Guerra create a lush environment with an intimate story of the challenge of maintaining one’s cultural heritage.
Birds of Passage is currently playing at the Toronto International Film Festival
To hear full audio of our interview with director Cristina Gallego, click here.