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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
This is an ethnographic thriller; a drama set in rural northern Colombia, centred on one indigenous group, the Wayuu, and based on the true story of a drug war that, from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, inflamed the region and engulfed a Wayuu family. It’s not a thriller with some local colour adorning the action or a documentary, rather, a view of Wayuu life that, in the inevitable contact with the surrounding world, tragically gives way.
Birds of Passagealso has the contours of a classical romance, in which a young couple faces obstacles that are particular to the Wayuu and yet grandly archetypal. The drama begins with the Wayuu ceremony for a woman’s coming of age: Zaida has spent the customary year of literal confinement, under the tutelage of her mother, Ursula, emerging before her clan in a public coming out that’s also a courtship ritual. Wearing a billowing cape and head scarf, her face painted, surrounded by a crowd of people, Zaida does an onrushing dance in which the young man who chooses to court her, Rapayet joins her, running and dancing backward as she charges, and deftly showing his physical aplomb, in meeting her step for step and gaze for gaze—and concluding, to the crowd’s admiration, by whispering to Zaida, “You are my woman.”
Divided into five “songs,” or acts, spanning a decade and a half, Birds of Passageunfolds at a tragic tread that’s both relentless and deliberate. The film is pervaded by a sense of doom, by premonitions that the clan’s new good fortune will inevitably bring misfortune through the eroding of the traditions that set the Wayuu apart as a people. While detailing the elaborate regulations of Wayuu life, the filmmakers also convey their spiritual aspect. They depict characters’ dreams and add the interpretations of the elders, dramatizing the force of talismans and the clues of totems to defend, warn, or menace the families at the movie’s centre.
As the title would suggest, numerous birds make appearances and even if you don’t quite know what they represent, they are very effective supporting players.