BIRDS OF PASSAGE (2018) – Oscars Shortlist – Review

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Two women of different generations are involved in a traditional ceremony, preparing the younger woman for something. This is how Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano) starts—Colombia’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film in Oscar that has made it to the shortlist. Soon, we find out that the young woman (Zaida) has officially become a woman and her mother (Úrsula) is making her ready for the announcement and taking a man. Rapayet, from another family, asks for her hand, but two issues work as barriers for him: one, his family, that is considered lower than Zaida’s, and second, money, to provide the big requested dowry.

Family, money, and women become the center of the film’s focus. Everyone acts motivated by one or more of the three, and mostly, by all of them. Motivated by all, Rapayet starts a weed dealing business with Americans. He collaborates with his friend, Moisés (from a family considered lower than both Rapayet’s and Zaida’s families), and with his own cousin’s family—mainly with Anibal.

From the very beginning of the film, we understand that family carries a significant importance for the film’s characters. From the opening ceremony and the song we hear during it to Úrsula’s dialogue with Rapayet and after that, characters explicitly state that family is the first priority for them and that they would do “anything” for it. This “anything” is what gradually causes more and more conflicts and eventually leads to a deadly war that destroys them all. Families in this region hold certain notions and wealth. These divisions have created a hugely divided society based on arbitrary “values.” Believing in “family first” is the root of all the chaos and death we see in this society.

Women have very interesting positions in the film. This society looks like an interesting combination of patriarchy and feminism, and the film’s style acknowledges this fact as well. While women are still the main caretakers and stay at home, they also become powerful figures in making key decisions. Like any patriarchal society, men have to “win” a woman and have to provide wealth and security to their women to be accepted. At the same time, women are also not typical counter-masculine peace-seeking people. Úrsula is the one who mobilizes people to murder Anibal’s family and workers in revenge. And while most other people are against her proposal, it is another woman who convinces them all that they should “punish” Anibal. While Rapayet escapes from the war with Zaida and their kids, it is Úrsula that goes after them. To keep the honor and pride of her family, she brings back Zaida and the kids to the “war zone,” where Zaida and her son get killed by Anibal’s people.

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, the directors, give us close shots of women when they use their power, influencing other characters or shifting the story’s path, and when they are powerless, they are usually seen in longer scales, sometimes even in the background, while a man can be seen in the foreground.

The film starts with the shots of two women from different generations, and it ends with the shot of a young girl (Zaida’s daughter) of the next generation. While the young girl walks away, a man sings about her saying that she doesn’t know how to herd and she doesn’t know the traditions of her society. While the film gives us a very grim picture of this society, it also gives us an ending that is both tragic and hopeful. This society was destroyed because of its mindless attachment to its “traditions” and established beliefs without questioning the bad parts of them. Maybe this girl who, according to the singer, doesn’t know the traditions will create a better generation in the future. While the women in the beginning were mainly static and confined in a closed space in the opening, practicing an old tradition, this young girl transforms into the iconic image of a lonely hero who walks away from a corrupt society for a better future.

At the same time, what catalyzed this destruction was the American interference in this society; the Americans who came with the pro-capitalism message. Hence, if leaving traditions is equal to moving toward this type of Western modernity, the result will be again corruption and destruction. That is why the girls’ movements are not firm and determined. She looks kind of lost. The man sings a song in praise of the lost culture; however, this girl, the future of this society goes to find a future, lost but maybe free from the false beliefs. The ending remains both tragic and hopeful.

The unity in narrative and style can be seen in other aspects of the film’s form as well. The film’s production design and cinematography work hand in hand to present a warm but barren context. The landscapes as well as the costume design give warm colors to the shots. As the conflicts go on and death and destruction dominates the society, we see more long shots of barren landscapes, and the color palette becomes more limited to yellowish colors. The film’s style presents a path for a society that becomes barren due to its cling to superstitions, bigotry, and conflicts caused by ignorance and hatred.

While this film might come off as presenting one strange and wild society, it is an effective portrayal of many modern and non-modern societies in the world, where people believe in “[something]first,” and that something can be a family, a race, or a country. At the time that we see this issue as a rising epidemic in the world, Birds of Passage can be an eye-opening piece for all of us.

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About Author

Hamidreza Nassiri

Hamidreza Nassiri started filmmaking when he was 19 with a short film called, White Black. Before getting his bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Tehran, he made his second film, An Unforgettable Poem. After graduation, he entered the University of Tehran’s master’s program in Cinema and made several short films, including his master’s thesis film, Daylight News, which premiered in the US in May 2014. He then left Iran to continue his education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he has also taught film production, film studies, and public speaking courses. The winner of several scholarship and teaching awards, he’s currently a PhD candidate in Film Studies. He has presented several papers at prestigious conferences such as SCMS, SCSMI, and MaMI and has been invited to several events to give lectures and Q&As. He received the Public Humanities’ HEX Award in 2018. He has just finished the post-production of his new English-language short film, Immortal. Hamidreza founded the Wisconsin Iranian Film Festival in 2017 and has directed and programmed the festival for the past two years.

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