Birds of Passage – Film Review

Yonna dance in Birds of Passage film

Yonna dance

After missing the screenings of Birds of Passage during the 2018 London Film Festival, I was fortunate to watch this film at a preview for the Reclaim the Frame project by the charity, Birds’ Eye View

Having travelled to Colombia previously, I was especially keen to view the various vistas displayed which were very aesthetically pleasing and to learn about an indigenous culture. Gwen Burnyeat, as a PhD writer, provided the necessary insights into the Wayúu culture which features in the film and helped to understand the context and symbolism.

The aim is for this review to be spoiler free especially given that the film has just been released.

I was captivated from the start of the film as it invites the audience to partake in the viewing of the preparations for a Wayúu custom. The symbolism within such scene is instantly connected to the title with dances, known as the Yonna, and items of clothing which swirl around resembling birds.   The use of the colour ‘red’ in clothing aswell throughout the film may highlight that sense of death and afterlife as themes in the film.

It is this initial, powerful dance scene with its themes of power, pride and masculine identity, revealed through the Yonna dance routine, that is the catalyst for the catastrophic events that occur later within the film. Shortly after such scene, the idea is formed to undertake trades involving drugs in order to earn additional money for Rapayet to satisfy the conditions of a dowry to have Zaida’s hand in marriage.

Dreams of deceased family members and premonitions, by the women, foretell the devastating impact such decision has not just on Rapayet but the community itself as several other members become enticed by the prospect of additional wealth.

There is a mythical feel to the storytelling as images of birds are seen in various scenes acting as the harbingers of the dead and provide a voice for the deceased. The cinematography itself is simply stunning with panoramic views across the desert which are not just aesthetically pleasing but also evoke that sense of remoteness. At times, there are beautifully shot images of an elder speaking in the indigenous language whilst at the desert or indeed singing prophetically.

There are moments where I was reminded of the film Timbuktu, which similarly had striking imagery in a desert.

Words themselves play an important role within the film and the Wayúu traditions as there is a word messenger who conveys important messages between the tribes and such word must be respected. The concept of disrespecting the traditions and others within the community appears to be one of the central themes as the notion of payback is discussed on a number of occasions with such decisions gently eroding the fabric of the Wayúu customs and ultimately leading to revenge.

There are many off camera events in the film as whilst there are drugs transactions involved, the substances themselves are never seen and appear to serve as a plot device.  Equally, the Westerners requesting such substances initially act as the source of the corruption of the indigenous customs and serve as a reminder of the involvement we may all have in negatively altering such communities.

The film itself explores the changing dynamic of the relationships within the community and the manner in which this is corrupted with no element remaining sacred by the end!

The division of the film into five chapters, described as ‘songs’, spanning decades evoked the sense of a Western to me but certainly kept me riveted to my seat and wanting to know how the remaining drama would unfold. The tension is ratcheted up during the final few ‘songs’ as the style of cinematography changes indicating the extent to which the indigenous ways have been altered beyond recognition. Whilst there are some violent scenes at these stages, these are filmed in such a poetic manner with the red blood almost representing a surrealist painting.

Given the red dress worn by Zaida for the ritualistic dance in the initial scenes, it would appear that there is deeper symbolism of such colour embedded within the indigenous culture.

It is also interesting to view the character of Ursula who is the powerful matriarch of one of the tribes. She is decisive, formidable and highly respected within the community but is also eventually corrupted, to her detriment, by the prospect of the additional prosperity created by the drugs trafficking which leads to some fateful decisions on her part.

Her role, at times, did remind me of Jackie Weaver’s matriarch character in the film, Animal Kingdom. It would also have been interesting to see more of this formidable nature within her daughter Zaida with regard to Rapayet and their children instead of her effectively becoming a character that lived through them vicariously.

Overall, Birds of Passage delivers a moralistic tale exploring the religious elements of tradition as well as the conflicts between tribes. It is not just a crime drama similar to The Godfather, however. For me, it is an enjoyable watch with powerful and poetic imagery. I also felt that the film places an emphasis on maintaining traditions for a society’s survival and I would certainly recommend watching this compelling film.

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