- Chandra Ingram
Birds of Passage: The Last Girl Living
A heart-wrenching, concentrated film, Birds of Passage treads on the hearts of clan families and traditions, bringing colorful Colombia and the Wayuu people both to life and death. Alliances tremble and conflicting loyalties collide, but the Wayuu’s put family first—always. Even as superstitions and symbols confuse the ethereal storyline, the importance of family remains fixed.
The picture begins with faint blue skies hovering over faded gold sands and a cracked, scorched earth. Small huts, built by hand with sticks, stones and dried leaves carry with them timeworn culture. As scenes slowly build upon each other, the screen offers glimpses of Colombia—from barren landscapes, deserts and jungle-ridden mountains, to a windy, gray beach with palm trees.
Birds of Passageis a circular tale that ends by reminding you why it began. When greed and revenge turns into self-destruction, only one will live to tell her tale. This is the birth of the five-part folk song. The lyrics share her story while declaring the unnecessary bloodshed and emphasizing the preventable pain.
The film opens with the sounds of the jungle and a woman’s hushed whisper over a blank screen. Then we meet Ursula, the venerable center of her village, and her daughter, Zaida, as they whisper a Wayuu familial mantra about those who came before them. After one year of confinement in a small hut, Zaida is ready to present to her family and potential suitors.
Rapayetdoes not shy away from the challenge. With the help of an Uncle, Rapayetreassures Ursula that he comes from a strong family line. He is determined to leverage his alliances and fostering business to earn the dowry and Zaida’s hand in marriage.
The expensive dowry is set at 30 goats, 20 cows, two decorative mules, and five necklaces. As the storyline progresses and families join together to enter the risky and illicit marijuana trade, the unit of exchange changes. Suddenly 30 goats, and 10 cows means a chest of licensed guns. Their new lucrative taste replaces hammocks with beds, and horses with jeeps.
The film draws on heavy themes, while maintaining its slow and steady pace. When ancestral values are threatened at the expense of Rapayete’s growing empire, Rapayete and Ursula are constantly put in opposition. In some scenes the drama is frank, to the point, and never amplified. The first gunshot rips your heart out with an unexpected bang. It’s left with silence, slowly invaded by the buzz of insects. A close-up of a white, blood-stained shirt follows yet another gunshot, reinforcing what we already know.
Some scenes avoid the drama altogether, cutting out the gory, but still showing what happened. In others, the soundtrack foreshadows the impending violence. After a massive marijuana delivery, a tribal beat resembles gunshots and suggests a coming war.
Seeded in tested piety, Birds of Passage shines new light on Colombian clan rituals and the importance of their deep-rooted values. More importantly, it voices the danger of up-rooting these values when planting capitalism and greed. In another mundane story of a grassroots drug business, Birds of Passagestands out by propelling the history of Colombia into the present. The film lacks an emotional attachment to its characters, but viewers will feel the ponderous weight of their decisions.
In the end, the folk song and story begs the question: What is more, if it’s at the expense of family and tradition?