The 2015 release of “Embrace of the Serpent,” a psychedelic exploration of Colombian tribes in the Amazon, went a lot further than the filmmakers expected. Director Ciro Guerra and his wife, producer Cristina Gallego, traveled from Cannes to Sundance with their acclaimed movie, which ultimately landed a foreign-language Oscar submission. The newfound attention and modest commercial success enabled them to make a longtime passion project, “Birds of Passage.” That movie uncovers the roots of Colombia’s drug war in the rise of illegal trading within the remote Wayyu tribes, which were emboldened — and then nearly destroyed — by criminal enterprises across several decades.
The project took years of research, as well as delicate maneuvers to gain the approval of the Wayyu community, members of which comprised 30 percent of the production. Gallego took on co-directing duties with her husband for the first time, juggling long days that required tricky on-location shoots in rugged outdoor environments assaulted by the elements. And in the midst of the production, Guerra and Gallego — partners in art and life for more than 20 years who raised two children together — got divorced.
But the struggle to make “Birds of Passage” is a survival story not unlike the history of Colombia itself. The sprawling, colorful ensemble narrative plays like “The Godfather” by way of Werner Herzog, as it depicts the jarring evolution of criminality in a world dominated by the ancient traditions of the country’s northern region.
Celebrated at Cannes and acquired by The Orchard for $1 million out of the festival, “Birds of Passage” followed Guerra’s previous film as Colombia’s Oscar submission and landed on the foreign-language shortlist. In the canon of Colombian cinema to date, it stands out as a bonafide masterpiece of cultural biography and deserves its place in the awards conversation. The former couple has no regrets about the bumpy ride. “We still have a profound love and care for each other,” Guerra said in a phone interview. “Our relationship has transformed and evolved throughout time, but it remains a close and committed relationship in different ways.”
Guerra and Gallego first made contact with the Wayyu a decade ago, during the production of “The Wind Journeys,” which was shot nearby. “We made a lot of friends in the region, and we started hearing about their stories,” Guerra said. In “Birds of Passage,” the ancient ritual of obtaining a dowry leads the ambitious Rapayet (José Acosta) to deal marijuana to some Americans traveling through the region. That first step into the illicit trade leads to a string of violence and ruthless empire-building across five chapters, as Rapayet transforms into the overlord of a drug war bound to collapse on top of him. Haunted by ghosts and surrounded by desperation, his journey epitomizes the chaotic roots of illegality that would haunt Colombia for generations to come. (The story is loosely based on real events.)
In the years since drug lord Pablo Escobar’s death, Colombia has worked overtime to improve its international image, and the country’s darkest chapters have rarely been explored in popular culture. For the Wayyu, however, it remains an integral aspect of their identity. While Netflix’s “Narcos” provides a schematic approach for explaining the history of the drug trade, “Birds of Passage” burrows inside the personal experiences that yielded a dramatic sociological shift for the Wayyuu’s clans. “Even though it was a tragic time, they somehow remembered it as a golden age,” Guerra said. “They saw economic growth like they have never seen before or since, and they remember it as a big party.”
For Gallego, the project offered the opportunity to complicate perceptions about Colombia both nationally and abroad, while reconciling perceptions of its older traditions with 20th-century developments. “Most films don’t represent our feelings about narco traffic,” she said, in a separate interview. “We were trying to explore how to bring the audience inside the feeling of the destruction of a family.” She had grown frustrated by stereotypes surrounding the Colombian drug trade that placed it in a vacuum.
“This idea that we are narco traffickers, or terrorists, it was very unfair to us,” she said. “The idea was that the business started here, but it came from people outside looking for marijuana and cocaine. It wasn’t just a business created by people in Colombia. We saw the potential for a gangster movie that hadn’t been told before.”
As Gallego took the lead in developing the screenplay and the dynamics between several characters, she decided to tackle directing duties alongside her husband. “Even if I never wanted to be a director, that was the balance during the process,” she said. “Ciro was completely open to the idea.” He credited her with drawing out the perspective of women throughout the story, including Rapayet’s determined wife Zaida (Natalia Reyes, one of the few experienced actors in the cast) to the elders of the tribe. “We wanted to hear what happened from the point of view of the women that were there because a lot of this history has been told about men,” she said.
Like her husband, Gallego insisted that their separation had no impact on the daily effort to move the project along. “That was personal, and happened in the moment,” she said, declining to offer specifics. “But it didn’t change a lot about the process.” Gallego’s brother and the film’s cinematographer, David Gallego, put it in different terms. “I think it just pushed their collaborative process harder,” he said. “This was something they developed as a couple, so that part of it kept them working together.”
To gain access to the Wayyuu community, the filmmakers had to approach the leaders of clans throughout the region. “As we approached them and told them that we were interested in making a film about this time, everyone started to share their personal memories about it,” Guerra said. “They also saw it as a way to make money and to be employed, so they seized on it very quickly.” From the cast to the crew, the Wayyuu’s presence dominated the set. “We weren’t making a film about them, we were making a film with them,” Guerra said. “They wanted to be a part of the filmmaking process. They were there all the time to make sure everything was right.”
Meanwhile, the directors developed an ambitious approach to the genre components of the story. While Rapayet faces a grisly shootout from his desert fortress in the movie’s dramatic finale, there’s no bloody closeups or histrionic confrontations of the “Scarface” variety. Instead, the entire battle unfolds from a single, static shot. “Usually, these kind of films have a showdown at the end, an action sequence,” Guerra said. “We wanted to build the anti-action sequence. There’s no cutting, no fast camera movement. We didn’t want the celebration of violence that these films usually have. We didn’t want to generate excitement.”
But excitement found them nonetheless. The compound was built from scratch on an arid terrain affected by a drought stretching back several years. But when the shooting commenced, a huge rainstorm arrived that flooded the set. The military brought vehicles to help remove mounds of mud from the set. “It was a disaster,” said Guerra. With two days of production left on their schedule, they had to make their spare approach to the sequence even sparer, capturing the shootout from a distance. “We came up with a way to make it more simple, and in the end it worked out very well,” he said.
The drama provided a stepping stone for Guerra as he geared up for an even bigger challenge: making his first English-language project. After the initial success for “Embrace of the Serpent,” he rebuffed offers from studios to work on existing properties. “It was definitely unexpected to be receiving offers to do blockbusters for hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “I read a lot, but it was difficult to find something that I connected with. If you don’t have that personal connection, you’re simply not going to make it work.”
He finally found it with J.M. Coetzee’s novel “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the tale of a magistrate in an ancient empire contending with rumors that an indigenous people might attack his land. Producer Michael Fitzgerald had been trying to get the project off the ground for years. Guerra recently finished shooting the movie in Europe, with Johnny Depp and Mark Rylance among the stars. “It thought it was going to be more different than it was,” Guerra said of the experience. “But it was a passion project for all of us, so the energy of previous films was here, too.” Nevertheless, he added, “one thing I’ve learned is that no matter how much money you have, it’s never going to be enough. You’re always struggling with time and locations.”
For “Waiting for the Barbarians,” Guerra brought along much of his crew — but not Gallego, who continues to produce a range of international projects from Bogotá, including one idea she wants to direct on her own. She was optimistic about Colombia’s evolving industry. “When we started making our first films, we didn’t have the resources or money,” she said. “I think the industry has grown up very well, but it needs to focus on the evolution of our history.”
Guerra echoed the sentiment. “It’s exciting to go back to who we are, what our culture is, and where it started,” he said. “We have found that the world wants to hear these stories.” Despite their opportunities to make more money and find acclaim around the world, Gallego insisted their intentions were pure. “For me, the impact we’re having is more than awards or numbers,” she said. “It’s about how the film connects with the audience, and how they see a different side of Colombia than the one they knew.”
The Orchard releases “Birds of Passage” in New York on February 13 and Los Angeles on February 15 with a national rollout to follow.