The genre staple of establishing drug connections, drug deals going sideways and often ending ending in violence with money owed to the wrong people, has been well explored and is an arguably worn out formula. Birds of Passage is a vast re-imagining that spins this construct into a very different experience, offering a contrasting, unique perspective. The drug trade represents capitalism and modern society, whose prosperity affects a native tribe of Columbia in the 1960’s, threatening their culture, their values and their humanity. This depiction of a real tribe of people during this period is both honest and brutal – it may be a very different look at the genre, but blood still spills.
Birds of Passage then is unabashedly calling out the modern world and especially capitalist society, speaking not just for this Colombian tribe, the Wayuu people, but all native peoples around the world who sadly have suffered similar fates. Despite the vastly different setting, this remains a violent crime saga, and whether it is a native tribe or the city folk of past films, the destination remains the same.
The Wayuu people rather impressively lived in relative peace until the late 1960’s, relatively untouched by modern civilisation, and thrived for years after they adapted after the marijuana trade invaded their culture, enriching their lives in a semi-capitalist fashion at the cost of their spirituality and morals.
This change comes after Zaida, part of an influential family of this clan and the daughter of the family’s matriarch, Ursula, takes part in a traditional ceremony signifying her becoming a woman. A young man, Rapayet, tells Zaida that she is to be his wife after taking part in this ceremony.
Ursula is hesitant to approve this bond due to Rapayet’s background, as she knows he has dealt with outsiders in the past. She consequently asks for a large amount of supplies as dowry if he is to take her daughter’s hand. Rapayet however uses his past experience to easily acquire what is asked of him; a sign of what is to come as he becomes heavily involved in the booming business of marijuana trade.
Living on their land in the far north of Columbia and Venezuela, the area becomes increasingly crowded by outsiders of the clan. Rapayet’s involvement in the marijuana trade has improved their lives in a material sense. However, it hurts their culture: traditions are compromised, as are their relationships with other Wayuu clans. Many younger men begin to leave the traditions of their culture behind, and soon violence erupts between the formerly peaceful clans of the Wayuu, with Rapayet at the centre of it all.
Birds of Passage straddles both its commentary on the modern world tearing apart generations of tradition and native people, while also presenting the film in a wonderfully colourful, picturesque and trance-like fashion, enhancing the film as more than commentary on a period of history. Traditional music also accompanies the colours and the traditional dancing, giving the serious narrative a stylish touch.
Within the enhanced colours of the desert, this story becomes a warning as well as an examination of the Wayuu people and how they were affected. It is a timely message as the cracks in capitalism seem to be showing today, and our future may well be similar to that of Wayuu tribe.
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