Birds of Passage / (Pájaros de verano) – a film that keeps giving.
A gripping, “richly textured” case study of Modernity swallowing Tradition.
Spotlights impact on a resourceful traditional people in Colombia.
But of pathological Modernity, a criminal mutation.
Then the violence is propelled to almost Monty Pythonesque extremes by the tribal honor code.
- This is a superb nuanced film exploring perhaps the single greatest socio-political issue of our times [no not climate change]: Modernity swallowing Tradition.
- But it’s a jaundiced take because here Modernity arrives in late 1960s Colombia as violent criminal drug trafficking to feed US demand, precisely an example of how not to “modernize”.
- Then ironically the violence – triggered by volatile young men – is propelled relentlessly by the Wayuu people’s “payback” honor code till it consumes them, to a mindless extent that borders on Monty Python, like the Holy Grail’s  famous Black Knight.
The pedantic nub…
- Modernity and Tradition are inherently incompatible, inconsistent, contradictory, utterly. The rise, emergence of Modernity will swallow, swamp Tradition.
- Birds of Passage [Pájaros de verano] is a case study on aspects of the collision of Modernity with Tradition, for which the old European story of Dr Faustus was an allegory, adapting the religious foundation of Christianity. Thus Satan offers Man Knowledge but in return for his soul [ie abandoning religious fairy stories].
- Later  the same allegory was transposed improbably by the young Mary Wollstonecraft into In the updated Faustian bargain, from Modernity through freedom we gain Knowledge, technology, thence prosperity, health and longevity.
- But we lose forever the ageless predictable certainties of Tradition [Old Identity Values, compounded especially of religion and hierarchical group authority.
- So for most people it meant no vote or beach holidays, poverty, violence and a short life, but also no comforting religious arm chair, no beer and skittles in the life thereafter.
- However, at the heart of Modernity is competitive freedom, by individuals and groups, so – crucially important for an optimum collective outcome – this freedom must be constrained by considerations of others, meaning “responsible” freedom, achieved through firm liberal transparent, democratic institutions, property rights, rule of law, and, above all, overseen by strong government.
- Precisely what we see advertised by deadly Iraq street protest by frustrated youth, September 2019.
- In Frankenstein the Doc [Victor] doesn’t take responsibility for his creation, allow him to be fully human, so the frustrated “Monster” takes murderous revenge.
- Similarly in this film Modernity arrives pathologically, arrives from the skies as criminal “irresponsible” freedom, with sadly catastrophic consequences for the traditional tribal family.
- However the film shows both sides, how then the violence which eventually consumes the subject Wayuu people is triggered [as usual?] by volatile short-fused men, but is then propelled relentlessly to a destructive climax by the ethnic group’s eye for an eye honor code, a payback system common among indigenous peoples across the globe.
- The final mindless cataclysm – when Anibal spends his last reserves on “help” from Medellin – recalls the darkly comic Black Knight in Monty Python’s 1975 Holy Grail.
- The film pays revisiting, works on many levels, has been carefully crafted in every respect, the nuanced story apparently drawing on real life Colombia across a generation from the late 1960s, the story structured Homer style to fit a traditional song, the sustained powerful acting, the complimentary music, the speaks for itself scenery.
Many and various.
- Be careful starting wars? Thus remember August 1914.
- Lock up your madmen!
- Say “No to Communism!”? Or beware “capitalism”? Yes, here we get closer to the story. Though the film of course has nothing to do with authentic “capitalism”.
- So ultimately, at the highest level, Pájaros de verano is a film about one story from the mighty canvas of Tradition meeting Modernity, with competitive individual freedom, here – in a north Colombian coastal desert – timeless tribal life colliding with a pathological Modernity that arrives from the skies as perverted criminal behaviour caused by a failure elsewhere [USA], ie government failure to restrain exercise of freedom for the collective good.
- So the film is a gripping, “richly textured” case study from the single greatest socio-political issue of our times, of recent centuries: of Modernity meeting Tradition, where the individual is tightly constrained by the rules of the group, compounded especially of religion and tribal politics, hierarchical group authority.
- Interesting is that the sequence of violence is triggered by volatile individuals [Moisies and Leonidas] going off script, but is then propelled relentlessly, mindlessly to a frightful climax by the traditional eye for an eye / payback honor code, common across the globe among traditional societies, ef the Mafia and in PNG.
- Modernity at heart is about the liberation of the individual, about freedom to create, explore, innovate, to indulge the imagination.
- At the heart of this freedom, in turn, is competition, as it is at the heart of much of the natural living world.
- But – hugely important – to achieve the optimum collective social outcome this freedom must be exercised “responsibly”, reflect the social context, thus recognize mutually agreed, negotiated constraints.
- In “Western” liberal democracy this is achieved through an effective democratic process, human rights, property rights, rule of law, but, above all, anchored by strong government.
- The Mediaeval European Faustian story is an outstanding allegory for Modernity – the modern world, the modern liberal order – in posing the fateful bargain: accept Modernity and we gain freedom to indulge our individual ambition, curiosity, imagination, freedom to explore, create, innovate. So we gain knowledge, hence health and prosperity [dentists, leisure and truffles], and this for the multitude, on an historically unparalleled scale.
- But in return we give up Tradition, the timeless predictable certainties. Yes we keep souvenirs, memories, mementoes, reminders, but the traditional authority system dissolves.
The rhyming, references…
Yes it has an Homeric feel, the epic tale sung by the blind herder, the blind Song Man bookending the film, the tale told as a traditional Wayuu song, in five jayeechi, cantos.
“If there is family, there is respect; if there is respect there is honor; if there is honor, there is the word; if there is the word, then there is peace”.
So it refers too to timeless themes explored by old Greek tragedy, cataclysmic intra tribal warfare triggered by random madmen actions, like Sarajevo in August 1914.
And yes the film recalls the American crime movies, the Godfather? The tribal criminal behaviour of the Mafia.
The Wayuu are an indigenous ethnic group, a traditional people, numbering over 400,000, in the area of La Guijara Desert, in Colombia and Venezuela, the group knitted by ritual, ancestor beliefs the haruspicatory communications of birds, all the workings of ”cultural memory”, like funerary rites, saluting ancestors, the cleaning and re-interment of bones.
Veracity. Is the film true to life? Or is history adapted here?
A tribe or people, the Wayuu , inhabit a patch of desert in NE Colombian, La Guajira Desert, poking into the Atlantic, beside Venezuela to the east.
They meet criminal ambition when one of their own, “corrupted” by contact with Outside World [like the alijunas [literally “the one who damages”], outsiders in Colombia], one Rapayet [introduced by uncle [or his father’s cousin?] Peregrino, a “word messenger”, a palabrero] returns, in 1968.
He arrives at the coming out [the chichamaya ritual] for Zaida, daughter of matriarchal Ursula [protector of the well off Pushainas clan, keeper of traditions, like listening to the divinatory messaging of the birds].
He pins the girl, painted and enrobed, after she doth entrance him, dancing the yonna [the Angry Chook].
The well meaning but ill informed R offends the W honor code, “offers [Z] a tuma necklace, which is a disrespectful and inappropriate gesture met with scorn..”.
The wary U, suspicious of ambitious men contaminated by the OW, discourages him by setting the dowry bar high.
But that only impels R to try harder, working with his random “nowhere man” close mate, the reckless decadent Moises. After a chance cross with dope smoking US Peace Corps youth they move up from coffee trading to marijuana trafficking.
But they need supply, so approach the cold all-business Anibal [R’s uncle? Or U’s cousin?}, at his secluded ranch in foothills nearby, who agrees to co-operate, at a price.
Business becomes good, but wild man M kills a couple Americans arrived by small plane to fetch produce, after learning the Americans are dealing elsewhere too.
This upsets A. M reoffends and R is forced to kill him, his old mate.
Much later the second unstable madman is Leonidas, son of R and Z. He insults A’s daughter at the ranch and A demands apology, submission. L reluctantly agrees but his hormones get the better and now he assaults her by the pool.
Oh dear. Now it’s WAR. A starts by killing Peregrino, the WM, when he arrives in a desperate effort to avoid cataclysm.
Killing a WM is very bad form and U musters her forces, makes a big hit on A.
But A and his right hand man survive, and A spends his stashed last savings on “Help” from Medellin, who arrive and raze U’s improbable desert family compound, funded by R.
A tracks down R and kills him. L is someplace else, hiding in a woman’s hut.
R and Z daughter Indira is the only apparent survivor, and film ends as she buys a few goats off the Homeric Song Man, also a farmer.
Earlier we see U’s mother, an old lady, walking along dead train track, straight towards the sea.