Ciro Guerra discusses telling a familiar story in an original way, using genre as a Trojan horse for ideas, and much more. Read our interview with co-director Cristina Gallego here.
Previously, Cristina Gallego talked to us about the sense of destiny in Birds of Passage, as well as the film’s striking visual style, informed by the traditions of Wayuu society.
In a longer conversation, the film’s co-director Ciro Guerra talked to us in more detail about aspects of the tragedy in the film, the humanizing power of genre, creative contradictions, the conflict between art and commerce, and the visual dimension of cinema.
7R: Why did you decide to tell the story of the drug trade in Colombia with the idea that these characters couldn’t escape their fate?
Ciro Guerra (CGu): When we were hearing the stories of this period, we felt a strange connection between the stories of the Wayuu people and the stories of the ancient Greeks. There was this connection to tragedy. For example, there’s the singer who sings the traditional songs. For the Wayuu, that’s their literature, that’s their epic song, that’s the way they communicate history. And also, for some reason, Greek names are popular in Colombia, like Leonidas… And there are stories of clans and families, with big conflicts within because it’s a land of very scarce resources. The Wayuu have built their entire society on the solving of those conflicts through words. The “word messenger”, who we see in the film, he’s the one who keeps the social fabric together. The importance that they gave to words was very moving to us.
There’s an element of fate. For example, the birds are seen as omens, and the Wayuu people interpret the future based on the birds that come and on the dreams that they have. Almost all American Indigenous societies attach utmost importance to dreams. In our society, we have put them aside; we think of them as something that we can’t understand, but the Wayuu don’t. They see them as the other half of reality. To them, they are just as real as our usual reality. The interpretation of dreams is done by women, and women are very powerful in this context. The men are totally occupied with the banal issues of the everyday, and the women are the ones who are connected, in a way, to eternity.
It’s a world that is very vast. It doesn’t fit into one film; we could make a hundred films just on the Wayuu mythology, because it is so rich and unexplored. But the connection that these very specific stories have to our centuries of narrative storytelling, which eventually evolved into the genres of cinema, is something that fascinates me.
7R: You mention genres, and Birds of Passage seems to fit into the genre of the gangster film. Yet I have never seen a gangster film like this before, one that really goes to the origin of the tragedy at the centre of it — namely, capitalism.
CGu: The interesting thing about the gangster film is that the reason why they were so important and popular, is because they were really about the evolution of society: how we have evolved into a capitalistic society. Capitalism comes in the most violent way.
In Birds of Passage, we show our experience of the arrival of capitalism: Colombia was a rural country, and we were forced to make the transition to a modern, urban country in a very violent way, in 15 years. In other societies, it was more gradual. That’s why you don’t have that many gangster films in Europe — the societies there have evolved over several hundreds of years, through centuries. In America, it was violent, over the course of very little time. So gangster films really resonate with the savage nature of capitalism.
I don’t believe that capitalism is bad per se. I think it’s a weapon which, if it is well used, can help. But somebody is always going to get hurt if it isn’t used well. It really thrives on the worst impulses of humanity, on corruption and greed. If it’s not heavily regulated and controlled, it runs amok, and that’s what happened to us in our country. This battle is still going on in Colombia, because the country lived for a long time in a very naive state, completely outside of what we call development. The reason why there is so much violence is because this clash was so violent.
I grew up during the ‘80s in Colombia, which was a violent period, and I was already wondering, “where does this violence come from?” I’ve been exploring this question in my films. A lot of people in Colombia wish it would just go away and think that we should just turn a blind eye to it and not discuss it. But I think we should discuss it. I think this is a question for now and for the future, because I see these conflicts multiplying everywhere. We have built a society that is very fragile — this society based on work is fragile like the Wayuu society was very fragile. The idea that society can quickly crumble under unexpected circumstances is just universal.
7R: How do you write the characters so that they come across both as individuals, with emotions and desires, and as people who are part of a sociological event?
CGu: I think what caught my attention early on is that often, when someone starts to talk about Indigenous people, they immediately put a label on them: “ethnographic” or “exotic.” When they do that, they essentially strip those people of their humanity and objectify them. People often don’t notice it, but it’s a racist thing.
The idea of making stories about Indigenous people which also work within the rules of genre storytelling was fascinating to me. It allowed us not to see those characters as objects, but as people in a story that you can relate to. They can move you, and you realise how complex they are; they are not victims, but agents in their own story.
Doing that was also a bit of an experiment. I didn’t know if it was going to work or not. But what eventually happens is that this [archetypal] gangster family story — which has been told many times and which people know very well — becomes something else. It becomes new and it allows a viewer who has not had any contact with this world to understand. So I think genre is a sort of Trojan horse for interesting ideas.
But on all of my films, I’ve always been concerned with humanizing those people. It’s just us! These people are us. It’s just that our stories were usually told by other people. And now, we’re finding ways to tell our own stories.
7R: It’s a genre film, but not one that adopts an American style. The look of the film doesn’t erase the specificity of Colombian culture.
CGu: Yes, I’m not interested in copying the American style of filmmaking. Some people are. They think it’s a way for their films to be seen, and I think that’s a valid concern, because we should try to make our films available and open to audiences. Jean-Pierre Dardennes said, “It’s not about audiences loving our films; it’s about our films loving our audience.” It’s about our films being open and generous.
But I’m not interested in just copying an American film. I’m interested in taking that tradition and subverting it, making it fresh. I think we are now in a moment where all the cultures in the world are in dialogue with each other. We should be fighting against the imperialistic idea of imposing stories on other people.
Even more than telling Indigenous stories, I’m interested in telling the stories that people know, but from the Indigenous point of view — which is my point of view, because I am Mestizo [a person of combined European and Native American descent]. In Colombia, we are Mestizos; we are mixed. For a long time, we have been ashamed of that, but I think it’s a good thing. It means we have a lot of places to draw from.
For me, the Indigenous point of view and the Indigenous view of the world is something that is enriching. We’re in a moment where cinema is growing so stale; the movies are just the same movies over and over again. I think it’s a good moment for different points of view.
7R: Both this film and Embrace are not exactly pessimistic, but they’re not happy either. The characters do not succeed in resisting the imperialistic invader. Do you think there are solutions?
CGu: Of course there are! If you’re pessimistic, then why make films? But it’s a very complex situation. It’s important to understand that it’s not something that will be solved just like that. It’s a very complex process, and the way it operates on people is very complex.
Commerce is about telling people that everything is alright. So if you want to be a commercial, you just have to tell people that the good guys always win, love always triumphs, everything is good, and we’re going to find a way. Art begins when you tell people, “everything is not okay.” It moves people into thinking that maybe this is not the best world that we can have. The other art is about conformity — this is the best we can do, you should be happy and thankful for what you’ve got. Some people think that way, and it’s valid. But some of us think that the world that we have is not the best world that can be. Storytelling is a way to explore why that is happening.
Just the fact that we are discussing cinema is a wonderful thing, because cinema is, I think, one of the best things that humanity has produced. That we are able to tell stories, that we are able to hear stories from different points of view — I think that is, in itself, a good sign.
For a long time, I had never seen a film from Iraq, for example. I was able to see one a couple of years ago, and I had never heard the Iraqi voice before. When I heard it, of course the stories that they have to tell were horrible. It was really hard; it broke my heart very profoundly. But it’s what they have been through, and we have to understand that we can’t just ask them to be happy, or allow their stories to be only told by the news. So, of course, when the stories come out, they will always say things that we may not want to hear. But that’s part of it. We can’t compromise that.
7R: The cinematography in gangster films is usually very dark; things happen all in shadows. But in Birds of Passage, there are bright colours and almost no shadows at all. It gives the film a more realist feel.
CGu: Personally, I am moved by art such as “The Triumph of Death,” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I think it’s one of the most beautiful artworks I’ve ever seen, but it’s depicting the most terrible thing! It’s just so overwhelming. Michelangelo does the same thing. I’m always moved by art that is able to look at the tragedy of our human experience, and to still find the beauty in it. Because our history, when you look at it from a distance, it’s tragic but it’s also a beautiful story — that contradiction is interesting to me.
The idea of making a colourful gangster film in broad daylight was interesting to me because of that. Of course, the gangster film is about the celebration of macho values — so we made a gangster film with a strong female character at the centre, directed by a woman. Those are the kind of contradictions that I’m always looking for, because I think that our nature is contradictory. Usually, we see people trying to deny that contradiction, trying to present themselves as just one thing. But their contradiction is just bubbling inside anyway. I like to embrace the contradictions of human existence, and a character becomes interesting to me when I find their essential contradiction.
7R: Every character is indeed very complex — they can do very good things, but also very bad things. At first, we fully understand them, then suddenly, we don’t anymore, and it’s a very tragic thing. How do you work with the actors to bring these characters to life?
CGu: Essentially, I don’t. I don’t ask them to play a contradictory nature. For me, with the actors, it’s all just about the moment. You just have to find a way to make the moment true, because cinema is just a collection of moments, a collection of seconds. If those seconds are true, the way you put them together in your narrative — which is what I do as a director and screenwriter — you will have this arc, this transformation, this contradiction.
But if the actor is trying to portray all of that, it can be very confusing. I don’t want the actor to be confused. They need to be clear about what is happening in the moment. I find that when the actor is thinking about the next scene, or the backstory, they tend to get confused. Great actors can do that, of course. But it’s a challenge that I don’t want to put on my actors.
Everyone in the film is part of something bigger. Even the director, we’re just controlling the way hundreds of moments will talk to each other. It’s like in an orchestra: everybody should be focused on their own instrument. Hopefully, the bigger picture will come together. Of course, there’s no one way of doing it, and it’s very difficult to find your own way because it can go in so many directions.
7R: What is your process collaborating with Cristina Gallego and with the film’s Director of Photography?
CGu: David Gallego, the DoP, is Cristina’s brother. It’s a sort of family affair. It’s a creative collaboration. When I create a film, there’s usually an image before there’s a story. A lot of images just come to me, but there are a few particular images that don’t go away; they’re there all the time, like a question. That’s where the story starts to grow from. That image already comes with a colour, with a tone, with a light, and my job is to share that with the cinematographer and the production designer. It’s very visual from the beginning. In part because of the production challenges that we face, I always need to storyboard the film, so that everyone knows what we’re doing. Cinema is a visual medium, and I’ve always been interested in that aspect of it.
I always try to bring in people who I can just give a starting point to, and they take it further. David is tremendously talented in that sense. He can take a basic visual idea that I have, and make it rich, whole, coherent. He’s relentless in his work; there are no boundaries for him. He can push himself way beyond anything that I’ve seen anyone do. He takes that starting point and goes as far as it can go. I’ve been very lucky to work with him.
Cristina has been the producer on the previous films, and we have worked together for many years. Her perspective completes mine in every film. As a director, you always need someone to have that dialogue with. She has grounded my ideas and my thoughts for a long time. She knows what connects and what doesn’t. She’s always the filter. When you’re creative, you can lose your way very easily, and she has always been the one guiding me. I feel like, through that, the connection that our films have with audiences has become stronger, because she is very grounded and very demanding. That dialogue is important.