This is a fascinating film which raises a number of the ‘global film’ questions that we like to explore on this blog. The film is directed by the team of Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra who will be familiar to UK audiences because of the wide success of their previous production, The Embrace of the Serpent (2015). The gossip seems to be that the couple have now split up and I wonder how significant it is that Cristina has a joint directorial credit on this film – whereas she was the producer on the previous film. Just as in 2016 when the previous film appeared in ¡Viva!, this was a preview screening and the film will get a UK release through Curzon on 17 May.
There are various ways in which this film could be described in conventional terms and the most popular seems to be as a ‘universal family gangster film’. There is certainly something in that description but it is a little glib to say the least. If I had to try to sum up the film in this way I’d suggest it is something like a cross between Gangs of Wasseypur and a film by Sembène Ousmane or another Senegalese or Malian director with all the rich mix of ideas that such a mash-up suggests. Ciro Guerra in the Press Notes (French via Google Translate) confirms a wish to make a genre film but still retain the exploration of the representation of indigenous peoples from the couples earlier films:
For me, it’s a film noir, a gangster movie. But it can also be both a Western, a Greek tragedy and a tale by Gabriel García Márquez.
Guerra also discusses the idea of ‘myths’ in story telling and sees popular cinema genres as a way to explore these. Later in the Notes Cristina Gallego suggests à propos of discussing the ‘great bonanza’ of the cannabis export to the US and the subsequent drugs wars in the 1970s:
It’s a metaphor for our country, a family tragedy that is also becoming a national tragedy. Speaking of the past, it allows us to better understand where we are today as a country.
The story covers the years 1969-79 and it is set in the peninsula of Guajira, the most northerly part of South America which sticks out into the Caribbean Sea. Wikipedia describes the region nicely:
The scenery of Guajira is very picturesque, with wide desert plains and green, foggy mountains.
The indigenous people of this desert/mountain region are the Wayuu. Under colonial rule, and after, the Wayuu were subject to missionary pressure to convert to Catholicism but in recent times they have been allowed to practise traditional rituals without interference. The Wayuu have always resisted centralised control over their affairs. The film narrative is set at a time when there might be priests around (much as in Sembène’s Ceddo (1977) but they don’t appear in the film. At times it is difficult to believe that this film is set in the 1970s – until we see the Land Rovers and Jeeps. The narrative begins with a meeting of a Wayuu clan in which a young woman, Zaida, who has been confined for a year is brought out to celebrate the moment she has become a woman. She performs a rapid dance with her younger brother and then he is replaced by a stranger, a grown man known as Rapayet. By taking a role in the dance Rapayet (who is also Wayuu) has suggested he is interested in marriage. But this requires a ritual proposal and Rapayet’s uncle Peregrino is an accepted negotiator. A bride price/dowry is agreed in the form of goats, cattle and necklaces. So far, so traditional. For us as the audience, the inciting incident is a chance observation by Rapayet and his business partner of a trio of Americans who we learn are associated with the ‘Peace Corps’ and who are distributing anti-Communist propaganda in the form of playing cards. They are also on the lookout for marijuana for which they can pay in US dollars. Immediately we know that tradition has been undermined by modernity, capitalism and American culture. Rapayet will buy the crops grown by his cousin in the mountains and the Wayuu clans will grow rich.
I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Instead I’ll just outline one or two of the other elements. The bride’s mother Úrsula turns out to be some form of spirit messenger who foresees the tragic events ahead (often via the appearance of certain birds – hence the title). She is also a formidable leader of her clan – to which Rapayet has now pledged himself. What follows is visually dominated by the stark contrast between the semi-desert lands where Úrsula’s clan are settled and the lush tropical hillsides where Aníbal, Rapayet’s cousin, has his house and fields. The second important element of the narrative is the deadly way in which the greed of criminal capitalist enterprise will join with/poison the traditional relationships between clans. This means that once a dispute begins it is almost impossible to end it peaceably. The narrative resolution which I won’t describe does return us to the use of traditional storytelling, although sadly it is too late to compensate for all the damage that has been done.
In all the carnage of the second half of the film, the Colombian police appear fleetingly and only to take their cut of the drugs business. Now, several days after the screening, I’ve only just realised that the time period in the second half of the 1970s was a violent time in much of South America and the period of the first two organised crime groups involved in the Colombian drugs business (although by this time it was cocaine rather than marijuana that was being exported to North America). The internal wars in Colombia (which involved both the drugs barons and leftist guerrillas) don’t appear in the narrative which seems to be almost timeless and also completely cut off from the rest of the region. It’s true that the peninsula is the most isolated part of Colombia, but it still feels odd.
The film’s casting does appear to have posed some problems for the filmmakers. I assumed that the largest proportion of the Colombian population was, as in many Latin American countries, mestizo – the result of inter-marriage between European colonists/settlers/migrants and indigenous peoples. This appears to be the case but, as in Mexico, there are different ways of estimating and defining the proportion of mestizos and that of ‘Europeans’. In most of Colombia, the indigenous populations are relatively small except in the peninsula and some border regions of the south. African-Colombians tend to be concentrated in the Caribbean coastal regions. While some of the actors did appear to be indigenous and possibly Wayuu, others were more European in appearance. The Wayuu use the word alijuna which I understand to simply mean ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’ – i.e. ‘not Wayuu’. It was this that I found a little confusing and I wasn’t sure if ‘marrying out’ meant being cast out of the community. My concern is that the principal characters (who are all professional actors) appear more ‘European’ than indigenous (though the Press Notes reveal that both Carmiña Martínez and Jose Acosta have Wayuu roots in the family histories). The only African-Colombian character of note, Rapayet’s business partner Moisés, is a loud and aggressive character and I assume that his treatment by the Wayuu is more to do with his personal characteristics than any racial prejudice. The film doesn’t really clarify any doubts about this.
I’m left wondering what I made of the film. Part of me is worried that the genre conventions of a clan war dominate the film too much and don’t allow enough of the unique geography and sociology/ethnography of the region to be fully appreciated (and it must have been a very difficult production to shoot). I fear the ‘City of God‘ syndrome and the over-promotion of the gangster genre so that the film becomes a cult hit based on its genre qualities. On the other hand perhaps there is enough suggestion about traditions and rituals of the Wayuu and the ‘spirituality’ of Úrsula and her family to keep us interested in the cultural questions. The filmmakers themselves have positive reasons for making the film this way and perhaps they are reaching a local audience? It’s what happens in markets like the UK that worries me. Curzon as a distributor used to be quite good with films like this, making available press materials. This time there is relatively little I can find (but perhaps more will appear before the actual release?). At the moment, the language of the film is given as ‘Spanish’ – but much of the dialogue is actually in the local Wayuu language.
I found watching the film was a very intense experience with the dramatic landscapes photographed by David Gallego. Gallego photographed The Embrace of the Serpent for the same filmmakers, but he was also responsible for the photography on I Am Not a Witch (2017) which would have taken him to Zambia, so perhaps my suggestion of an African feel about some images is not too outlandish? I enjoyed the music by Leo Heiblum and the sound design by Carlos García. Both are very strong in eliciting an emotional response and the film worked very well in the big screen in HOME’s Cinema 1. When it comes out, find the biggest screen you can.