By Josh Gardner
Birds of Passage / Pájaros de verano is the latest film from filmmaking duo Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego. The pair was nominated for an Oscar for their previous effort, Embrace of the Serpent / El abrazo de la serpiente. Their new collaboration paints a fascinating picture of the intersection of Colombia’s indigenous communities and drug trafficking through an epic story of one Wayuu family torn apart by fallout from the drug trade.
Birds of Passage premiered earlier this year at the Director’s Fortnight sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews before making its way to the Telluride and Toronto film festivals this fall. We spoke to Gallego at TIFF—who stepped into the director’s chair for the first time on this film—about her inspiration to tell this story, her creative partnership with Guerra, and working with the Wayuu community.
Gallego discovered this story on the set of an earlier film, The Wind Journeys / Los viajes del viento. “All the actors in that movie were non-professional. They told us a lot of stories about what happened during the ‘70s and ‘80s, a period known as the Bonanza Marimbera.” It was during this time that marijuana exports to the U.S. skyrocketed, and indigenous communities were caught between the pressures of the drug trade and traditional values. “We learned about the destruction of entire families due to a strong belief in honor and strict codes of behavior. One by one they killed each other. We thought that the way the Wayuu operate, by such strict norms, would make the perfect gangster movie.”
Aware that the story of Colombian drug trafficking has been portrayed many times on film, Gallego wanted this film to be different. “When we were working in the Wayuu community,” she explained, “we realized that they have a history and a culture of very strong women. So we conceptualized a way of telling this story through that perspective. The Wayuu, themselves, told us that women didn’t play a strong role in the community, but the women are the ones that speak Spanish, make and sell handicrafts, and bring the money to the community. It is a very incredible thing.”
In fact, this strong feminine spirit is what inspired Gallego to step into the director’s chair alongside her husband. “Ciro and I have a working relationship that began 20 years ago when we met at university. It was always a creative partnership, previously a producer / director relationship. But, with time, the boundaries between production and direction began to blur.” Gallego elaborated, “I did not aspire to be a director, but I also realized that the role I wanted to play was more like that of a director than producer. Because this movie needed a feminine vision, it was obvious that we would co-direct it together. The movie is a meeting of two visions, it’s a clash between the traditional and capitalism, between feminine and masculine, and the relationship between the intuitive and the real. In the end, my experience as a co-director was not so different from what I had been doing on our previous films.”
Gallego also wanted to be sure that the film respected and represented the Wayuu people faithfully. “The first thing we did was work on the script with an anthropologist, a specialist of the Wayuu world, who helped us stay true to the important points for the Wayuu, for their culture, correcting us when need be.” She added that nearly a third of the crew were, themselves, Wayuu.
“We made sure they were the first ones who saw the film in Colombia, out of respect. The good thing is, they understood that this was a very difficult time period for them and, as such, the film doesn’t always show them in the best light. But, they loved the way that their world was represented in the film. They connected immediately with the things that we knew we had to construct for the other audiences, for example, all of the visions of the birds and the dreams. Now they are starting to write and to think about their own representation. They want to tell their own histories and stories.”
Birds of Passage was selected as Colombia’s Official Entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and is being released in theaters by The Orchard in February 2019.