Review by alison traynor

From The Wire and Breaking Bad, to Love/Hate and Narcos, the origins and impact of the global drug trade have been depicted countless times over the past decade. “Narco” cinema, along with its extrinsic counterparts, has become a mainstream genre in its own right. Unsurprisingly, this category of film tends to contain many recurring - and often problematic - tropes. Various aspects of its content, from the cinematography to the plot lines, are often inordinately sensationalized. The protagonists are frequently portrayed as lovable rogues despite their penchant for torture and gun violence. Likewise, it generally has the uncomfortable ability to make its audience empathize with these barbarous characters and overlook their ruthless behavior. In short, the genre tends to glorify the concept of drug trafficking and expresses little concern for verisimilitude.

Impressively, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage breaks down many stereotypes of this genre, and in doing so provides a much more accurate representation of the realities of drug trafficking. This is certainly an admirable accomplishment, but it feels disconcerting to somebody, like me, who has spent years of their life guiltily reveling in the narco-porn worlds of Walter White and Marty Byrde. Its authenticity causes the film to feel as if it is progressing in slow-motion, and watching it is a tedious experience at times. However, these moments of monotony were worth the struggle in order to gain a true insight into the Colombian drug trade and question my own misconceptions about the subject.

It explores what happens when native traditions are defied, and the detrimental impact that foreign influences and capitalism can have on native groups.

Birds of Passage narrates the story of a Wayuu family who become involved in the South American marijuana trading industry from the late 1960s to the 1980s. The film is just as much about Wayuu culture as it is about drug trading. Birds of Passage provides a fascinating insight into the people and traditions of the Native American ethnic group, who resiliently manage to retain their language and culture despite the Spanish conquest and subsequent modernization of northern Colombia. It explores what happens when native traditions are defied, and the detrimental impact that foreign influences and capitalism can have on native groups. Tradition and the old world is represented by the clan’s matriarch, Úrsula (Carmina Martinez), whose determination to preserve Wayuu customs is manifested in the control of her family, and causes various problems for her daughter Zaida (Natalia Reyes) and her two grandchildren. In contrast, Zaida’s drug-dealing husband Rapayet (Jose Acosta) represents a transforming Colombia that cannot live in harmony with Úrsula’s archaic world.

The film’s cinematographer, David Gallego, captures the visceral beauty of ancient Wayuu traditions brilliantly. Footage of Zaida and her suitors performing the baile de cortejo, a Wayuu courtship dance, beguilingly reflects avian movements as her clothes flap in the breeze like the wings of birds. The imagery of wailing women as they cover their faces upon the deaths of members of their community is also extremely stirring. Furthermore, the sweeping, barren landscape provides a breathtaking backdrop to the film, and aptly reflects the dichotomy of beauty and bleakness that is conveyed through the plot. Overall, Birds of Passage paints an epic picture of life and death, love and hatred, and the tension between old and new in a consistently subtle and stylish way.

Birds of Passage is now screening at the IFI.