'Birds Of Passage,' A Drug War Film About Human Impact On The Wayúu In Colombia Colombia's submission to the Oscars this year addresses the beginnings of the drug trade in rural Columbia — and how it shattered the traditions and families of the indigenous Wayúu people.
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In 'Birds Of Passage,' A New Lens On The Narcotrafficking Drama

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In 'Birds Of Passage,' A New Lens On The Narcotrafficking Drama

In 'Birds Of Passage,' A New Lens On The Narcotrafficking Drama

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/695238595/695756060" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The decadeslong drug war in Colombia has fueled a whole genre of movies and TV shows. Think men with guns wearing crisp suits in the tropical heat, like in the Netflix series "Narcos." A new film from Colombia shows another version of that story. It's called "Birds Of Passage." NPR's Bilal Qureshi has more.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Film critic Monica Castillo says movies about Colombian drug cartels may be popular, but they have serious blind spots.

MONICA CASTILLO: U.S. dramas or productions keep repeating the same narrative of narcos as gangsters, and look how cool they are and how much power and money and wealth - you know, the whole sort of fascination with Pablo Escobar, for instance. But there is a real cost to a lot of that violence.

QURESHI: In this drug war movie, the cost is cultural.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDS OF PASSAGE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, foreign language spoken).

QURESHI: "Birds Of Passage" opens in 1968. A young woman dressed in a billowing red dress that looks like wings dances with a suitor in an elaborate courtship ritual.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDS OF PASSAGE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, foreign language spoken).

QURESHI: This is the world of the indigenous Wayuu people. Manuel Betancourt is a Colombian culture writer and says the Wayuu are rarely seen on-screen.

MANUEL BETANCOURT: They are a very specific group that, really, were never colonized by the Spanish. They have a very particular relationship with the Colombian government in that they sort of operate under their own rules and justice. So even just seeing that in the film, as a Colombian, it's like seeing your country in a brand-new way.

QURESHI: The directors of "Birds Of Passage" are Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra.

CIRO GUERRA: (Through interpreter) When we talk about cinema about the Indigenous community, we're often thinking about distant ethnographic approximations that exoticize. We wanted to make something that brings us close to them and lets us tell the story from within.

QURESHI: The filmmakers immerse viewers in one Wayuu family that is ripped apart by the arrival of the marijuana trade. It's the women who can sense the chaos to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDS OF PASSAGE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, foreign language spoken).

QURESHI: Filmmaker Cristina Gallego explains that the Wayuu are a matrilineal society, and the women see the omens.

CRISTINA GALLEGO: (Through interpreter) Our Indigenous communities have a strong connection with myth, with magic, with the supernatural, but really, it's with the manifestation of nature. When nature speaks, what does it want to say?

QURESHI: In the film, it says that money and greed will destroy the traditional culture. The Wayuu also inspired Colombia's most famous novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and his iconic magic realism. Garcia Marquez's grandmother was of Wayuu descent. And filmmaker Ciro Guerra says the writer's most famous novel was a guiding force.

GUERRA: (Through interpreter) For us, it was a fountain of inspiration because that's really what a novel like "One Hundred Years Of Solitude" is about. It's about the arrival of modernity and the arrival of the 20th century and all the things it brought to a place that was, in some ways, outside the laws of the modern world.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE BUZZING)

QURESHI: On-screen, the magic realism translates into dream sequences - widescreen images of storm clouds gathering that foreshadow the looming tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER BOOMING)

QURESHI: Culture writer Manuel Betancourt says the influence of the novelist is palpable in the finished film.

BETANCOURT: It's his magical realism at its most elemental. And it lends the movie a more ethereal aspect.

QURESHI: There's perhaps nothing more ethereal than the birds of the title, which appear in hypnotic sequences on-screen, walking silently through a room, as filmmaker Cristina Gallego explains.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GALLEGO: (Through interpreter) The Wayuu have a strong relationship with birds and what they symbolize. When a certain bird appears, they're the messengers of what's to come. We wanted to speak to that.

We wanted to speak, also, to the arrival of the planes because they are birds made of metal. In the '50s in Colombia, pajaros - birds - was used to refer to people with guns, people who brought violence with them.

QURESHI: The planes land and take off with the marijuana as the Wayuu clans descend into war.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE BUZZING)

QURESHI: To achieve the cultural specificity of the movie, the filmmakers hired members of the community.

GALLEGO: (Through interpreter) Thirty percent of the people who worked on this film were Wayuu, and they were constantly correcting us on how we represented them.

QURESHI: Despite their old world subjects, filmmakers Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego are at the forefront of a Latin American new wave. Their previous collaboration, "Embrace Of The Serpent," was nominated for an Oscar, and "Birds Of Passage" was Colombia's official entry to this year's Oscars. Gallego and Guerra say they see cinema as a way of continuing the role of storytelling in their country.

GUERRA: (Through interpreter) For the Wayuu and for indigenous communities, what's important is that their stories are known and that they're kept alive. They do that through song and through an oral tradition. And they want us to learn their lessons so that we don't repeat their mistakes.

QURESHI: The filmmakers say cinema is their way of bringing those ancient lessons to a new generation and to those accustomed to drug war cliches. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

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