Birds of Passage

TIFF Journal: Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage

Movie Rating:


Christina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage is a film of great beauty and great brutality. It crafts a deeply moving tale of one family’s rise and fall as a crime empire in the desert-like sands of Colombia.

Told in episodic chapters dubbed “cantos” (or “songs”), the film feels near mythic, despite being based on real events from the 1960s and ’70s. The story is told with ethnographic precision, detailing the various customs and social strata surrounding a Wayuu family as they emerge from their insular ways to deal in vast quantities of marijuana for an insatiable American market.

The film begins with the emergence of a young girl who has been isolated for most of her life. In celebration of her inclusion in the community as a woman, she performs a dance where she flares her dress. A young boy (her brother) tries to keep up while marching backwards and responding to her cues. When he falls, another takes his place, a man from an outside group who has ideas of his own, anxious not only to win her affections but to become part of this powerful trading family.

With such small beginnings launches a Scarface-like rise where betrayal, murder and hubris are the inevitable result of the quest for power within the drug trade. Yet Gallego and Guerra’s gift lies not in genre thrills, but in their exquisite capacity for precision and specificity. The textures and shifting allegiances of the community are detailed in astonishing ways. This documentary-like quality, mixed with the added dash of crime saga swagger, makes Birds of Passage a highly effective and unique film.

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