Directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego follow up their black and white epic Embrace of The Serpent with Birds of Passage. The film takes us back to Colombia to look at the country’s past, chronicling the origins of the drug wars. Guerra and Gallego tell a story in a new way, from the point of view of the Wayuu tribe, an indigenous group affected by savage capitalism and how the West affects tradition and culture.
From a dazzling opening sequence rooted deep in tradition, history and culture to tragic characters as the drug war ushers in through the region, Guerra and Gallego jumped on a call to talk about the film opening this weekend.
Talk about that opening where she’s dancing in front of the men is so captivating.
Ciro: We knew we wanted to open the film in a way that was intimate and would hook the viewer putting them in context of this world.
We wanted to look at the female perspective with this. What you’re seeing is the Yonna dance. It’s a ritual and young women spend a year in confinement where they’re only visited by their mother and grandmother. They’re taught about womanhood and the tradition of women and family. When they come out, they do this dance and men prove that they are worthy of marrying them.
It’s a spectacular and vibrant moment that we thought would be a great way to open the film.
Cristina: We wanted to have the movie moving. We have the narrator singing and this ritual between mother and daughter. We see the importance of community in that scene.
Talk about the title and what it represents through Birds of Passage.
Ciro: It has several meanings and has several interpretations that can be open to the viewer and to their imagination.
Birds are an essential part of iconography and mythology. They’re the connection between the living world and the dead. They’re present in every myth and ritual.
On the other hand, the idea of birds in the title speaks of this idea where something is temporary. They come and go. They leave nothing behind. It speaks about the nature of human existence too.
How did Birds of Passage begin and what made you want to go to Colombia to go into the tribes and telling it from their point of view?
Cristina: We wanted to talk about the history of narcotics trafficking. This was one of the starting points of the film. When we knew about the history that happened during that period with marijuana and how it’s legal in most countries but not in Colombia. When we started learning about this history, many things started to change for Colombia. We wanted to tell this story from our point of view as Colombians.
We had a feeling that narcotics trafficking was a taboo for our society because people related Colombia to drugs. All history on it was told from an outsider point of view and from the point of view from Americans.
We wanted to tell the story from our point of view because we didn’t feel comfortable with the representation that we had through foreign cinema. It was something that made us uncomfortable. We wanted to tell a story from our point of view as a society.
The film is a metaphor of our national tragedy.
The rituals were a beautiful insight from the opening to the exhuming of the coffin and the dreams being interpreted.
Ciro: The culture is a fascinating one. It has a profound relationship with the dead. To them, the dead carries on into another world and guides us from that perspective and they communicate through dreams. The culture has two burial ceremonies. The bodies are buried and five years later the bodies are exhumed and the bodies are carried wherever they go.
With all the violence, the relationship with the dead and the dreams is transformed in the face of the profound transformation.
Cristina: We wanted to portray something that is deep and profound for us – magic realism. We made that link with One Hundred Years of Solitude and Gabriel García Márquez and we found many connections to the Wayuu culture. It was about how they live and the decay of the family. It was in the spirit of how we wanted to tell our story that looked a how these towns with their own rules collapsed with the arrival of savage capitalism.
Leonidas represents the American influence and shows that decay and how he falls to American culture through what he does. How did you craft him?
He’s a tragic character from the outset. He’s a spoiled child and becomes entitled. He’s about the downfall of society. He’s a reflection of the consequences of growing up in a culture where tradition has been left behind and materialism has taken over.
There’s a very important scene when he forces that man to eat dog feces and that’s something that really happened and it was just an example of the degradation that can come to someone who only cares about materialism and greed and how it can lead to misery.
Cristina: This character was special because it really showed that change. That character was the Achilles heel of his mother. She’s the guardian of tradition and would do anything for the family.
With Leonidas, he was the bad seen and he broke the traditions she wanted to keep. It was corrupted by his character and what he was exposed to.
The scene where the house is on fire was spectacularly framed. Discuss your editing choices here because it’s a single shot.
Ciro: In films of this genre there’s always an action sequence or a showdown. We wanted to shoot it the opposite way. Instead of cutting it, we wanted to do it with one single shot, it’s a wide shot and you’re looking at it from a long distance. The idea was to be looking at this tragedy unfold in front of you so that it doesn’t become about the spectacle of violence and destruction but instead looks at the tragic consequences.