Interview: Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra on Birds of Passage

Yes, they are very suspicious of all outsiders, who are called alijunas or ‘the ones who damage’.
— Cristina Gallgo

From the filmmakers behind the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent comes their latest epic, Birds of Passage, a tale about indigenous traditions and the corrupting forces of wealth and power, set against the backdrop of the Colombian marijuana boom of the 1970s. A film of both gangsters and spirits, corruption and fratricidal war, this is a thrilling depiction of the origins of the drug trade told through the story of an indigenous Wayuu family’s downfall when greed, passion and honour collide, putting their lives, culture and ancestral traditions at stake.

Pamela Jahn spoke to co-directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego about the Wayuu people, the female perspective on violence, and twisting the macho gangster genre into something more complex.

You worked together as a producer/director couple on many films before. How did the decision to co-direct on this film come about?

Ciro Guerra:  We have been collaborating for a long time, we have done four films together.  And you are right, so far, Cristina was always the producer.  But with this particular project, Cristina’s creative involvement was much bigger from the beginning. Our intention was to give genre films, which are always masculine, a certain twist.  And we thought a female director could help to make the film unique and special. Besides, Cristina was very much into the story. The idea came from her, really, and it felt like a nice little transition from the work that we had done together on other films. In the end, it wasn’t that different in the sense that we had already collaborated so much, that we had discussed everything in the same way we would have done in the past, so it’s just that the direction came from both of us this time instead of just me.

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How did you work together on the set?   

Ciro Guerra: For both of us, the work on set is more about execution, so at that point, you should have done most of your work already. In other words: We had already done most of the thinking and the conceiving and the world building of the film beforehand. Once it came to the execution it was mostly me leading the way with Cristina being on my side to assist and support me. Cristina, on the other hand, then worked more deeply in the editing process. So that worked out perfectly, because I am more comfortable working on the set.  This means on set is where I usually take the leadership and in the editing room, she is in charge. And we talk and listen to each other every step of the way. 

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You mentioned your intention to step away from a rather male oriented perspective when it comes to genre films. What does the female view add to this?

Cristina Gallego: We were interested in the approach to look at things from the female perspective, because when we started to collect stories about the marimbera bonanza in the 1970s, we realised that it was perfect material for a gangster movie, but also, that all this happened in a society where women were strong and had an important role. And this is important, because it’s something that you cannot see from outside. Therefore, our first approach to this story, when we started working on the project ten years ago, was to tell the story form a man’s point of view. However, the more we researched, the more we talked to the people in the Wayuu community and the more learned about what happened, we started to question why anyone would even try to tell the story from a male perspective when there were so many women involved. So we started to look deeper and deeper into that question.

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How did you manage to gain the trust from the people in the Wayuu community? One would think they are probably quite resistant to outsiders.

Cristina Gallego: Yes, they are very suspicious of all outsiders, who are called alijunas or “the ones who damage”.

Ciro Guerra:  However, at the same time, it’s important to understand that the people are very used to foreigners. They are constantly surrounded by foreigners and always have been. So at first, the people were very hostile towards us, in the same way they always managed to keep foreigners outside. They don’t let anyone in.  But they are used to trading with the foreigners all the time, because they live in a very harsh environment. Before marijuana, they used to trade juice and they used to trade cigarettes and clothes and whatever they could find to make business with. So they are also relying on foreigners, just for their own culture to survive. Nonetheless, they remain very close to their families and their society.  And it wasn’t so much about letting us in, they didn’t need to. It was more that we invited them to be a part of the process. And they were very enthusiastic about being part of a film, because they are very interested in telling their own stories. Now, some of the younger people are even interested in studying film. So we ended up having a lot of Wayuu people working on the film, both behind the camera and quite a few of the actors. Because they also saw it as an opportunity. When a foreigner comes, it’s not only a thread, it’s always an opportunity too. It means good business. 

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What did it take you to create the visual style of the film? The landscape feels very different, almost otherwordly.

Ciro Guerra:  We wanted the film to stay very true to the traditional Wayuu iconography and the Wayuu, they are very colourful in the way they dress and the textiles they use. Also, the birds are a very important presence throughout the mythology and the iconography. On the other hand, we wanted the film to feel like a Western, because of the region in which it is set, and we took some inspiration of Spaghetti Westerns like Sergio Leone films, because we felt it was a very particular story in that it had elements of film noir also. Westerns and elements of Greek tragedy and classical realism as well. It was a mixture of many things and it was something completely new to us, but it was everything that we could see in the story and it felt natural to include all of these different aspects.

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Cristina Gallego: Today, the marimbera bonanza is close to the myth in the Colombian Caribbean, and that helped us rethink its narrative through a certain magical realism, almost garcíamarquiano, So we delved deep into psychoanalysis, because that unconscious line, more related to dreams and the dead, that is what women relate to in the Wayuu culture. Because in that culture women are the ones who manage not only the economic side of things, but the spiritual and political borders as well.


In terms of the family war you’re portraying in the film, did you draw on a real story?

Ciro Guerra:  Yes, it really happened, but we are not using that exact family. Everything in the film is based on real events as it were, but what is fiction is the way we put it together and the relationships, because we didn’t want to expose anyone or have someone feel that we were telling their exact story. But there are many warring families, I know of at least twelve cases of these blood feuds and the biggest one led to the deaths of over 300 people.

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How did you create the character of Ursula?

Cristina Gallego:  Initially, her character was entirely fictional. We created that character from my imagination. But as we were working on the script, we felt that we needed a sort of base to write from, we needed to give her some life, some flesh. But first, when we asked about the women and her role, the people would tell us that they’re not involved, they’re just in the kitchen. However, we thought no, there must be someone because the woman are very important in commerce or politics. And they speak Spanish because they sell the handcrafts and other goods, and they bring the money to the community. So we knew it wasn’t true.  And finally we found a man who told us that his wife was involved with it, and she invited us to lunch and told us amazing histories of this period. She became the main inspiration for the character. 

Ciro Guerra:  She became an esoteric consultant.

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Her relationship to her daughter is very special.

Cristina Gallego:  Yes, I think there is something very interesting in this relationship in the way these different generations interact with each other, these different kind of characters, and it’s something that kept bothering me for a long time, because I didn’t want us to paint a picture in which all women or men or foreigners or natives are either good or bad. It’s about  the relationship between these powers within the family. And yes, they see things very different and, of course, Ursula has all this knowledge and experience and also tradition is very important for her in order to keep the family together. Her daughter receives this knowledge, but things change because she is not as strong as her mother and she doesn’t have as much power on her side. Only when the husband is lost, she has to be strong. And that is the point, the women are alone because the men are drunk or dead or gone away, so they need to man up themselves and be strong. This was very important for us to convey, the way you transform when the circumstances force you to step up.

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Why did you decide to use the hajegi song to build a certain structure around the story you’re telling?

Ciro Guerra:  The song, that is the way they used to tell their stories in the past, but it has changed recently because it has become influenced by radio and popular music so it’s now more about the love songs. But it used to be just about storytelling. There’s a famous story about a guy who committed a crime but he was never punished for it, and he felt so bad that he sang about it in a hajegi song. This particular song then became so famous, people would sing it in their community meetings for a long time. About thirty years later, this song was heard by the son of the man who was murdered, and in the song it was revealed who had killed his father. So the son went to see the man and took revenge on the murderer because of the song. It’s a very powerful way of mythmaking and we took inspiration from that to build the structure of the film like the song.

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All your films are very visceral. You have a very subjective approach to storytelling.  Do you feel that it creates a closer relationship between the film and the viewer?

Ciro Guerara:  Yes. I like it when a movie takes me somewhere. And as a director, it’s important to me to form a bond with the audience. I believe cinema has the ability to do that and it’s very powerful in building bridges and creating an empathy in a world that is so divided. I think that’s something that is necessary and something that cinema can do for the world, to understand people that are completely different and far away from what you are experiencing in your own life.

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With this film, you are also taking a step away from your last film. Was it a deliberate decision to do something entirely different, creatively?

Ciro Guerra:  Yeah, of course. This film was already in the works when Embrace of the Serpent came out, and it was the one that we wanted to jump right into afterwards. However, the people we work with, they asked us to postpone the film slightly. We knew it was a different film and that we wanted to do a different film in that sense. And I realise now that all my films are very different, even if sometimes only in very superficial ways. But I also think that the undercurrents of the films, the profound themes of the films, they are deeply connected. 

Where do you see the connection between this film and your last one?

Ciro Guerra: It’s not something that I can rationalise so easily. But for me the themes of spirituality, the themes of myths, they are inherent in both films.

Cristina Gallego:  The is also the relationship between the unconscious and the dream.

Ciro Guerra: And man’s relationship to nature. All those are things that are deeply rooted in almost everything I do, and they always will be.

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Where to Watch Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage is released in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on May 17, 2019.

You can register for a free Curzon Home Cinema account here. If you are a Curzon cinemas member, you can enter your membership number to receive a discount on all rentals.