Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage is set against the Colombian marijuana boom of the 1970s, exploring the corrupting influence of money and power. In conversation with ASFF, Guerra discussed his attitude towards filmmaking, creating a new representation of Colombia and its people, and discovering unexpected connections through storytelling.
ASFF: Why film as a means of creative expression?
CG: I have been interested in storytelling since I was very small, and I tried many ways of doing it. I thought about oral storytelling and I used to draw comic books, but cinema seemed the best way to me. It was just about the opportunity to turn the lights down on the audience and to tell them a story. But in Colombia in the 1980s, it was almost impossible to dream of filmmaking, so it seemed like something very far fetched.
ASFF: How does your body of work fit together as a whole?
CG: I’m always trying to make a completely different film, but they are coming from the same place, and so they are connected. If I make one in black and white, then I try to do the next one in colour. If I do straight narrative, then I try to go full blown baroque for the next. You’re always escaping your last film in many ways because you spend so much time doing it, and it’s such a difficult process.
The fact that a body of work exists is a surprise. It’s so difficult to put together the financing, and for all the circumstances to come together to make a film. I make every one thinking it’s the last. Every film feels like a miracle, and it’s not possible for me to think in terms of a body of work. It’s something that audiences can see and interpret for themselves, but for me it is always about making something. The rule I set myself is to only make stories that you believe in, that you haven’t seen before, will take you to new places and represent a challenge. Besides that I don’t have any other prerogatives.
ASFF: In what way did the story of Birds of Passage conform to these rules, and compel you to bring it to the screen?
CG: Ten years ago we made a film called The Wind Journeys, which was set around the same time period. We came across more and more similar stories. We started talking to people, and Cristina and I realised that this narrative hadn’t been told. Colombia’s younger generation had never heard about it, and it was an opportunity delve into something that marked our country for the decades to come. It was also an opportunity to make a film with indigenous people, and we have always wanted to do a genre film in a society where women are super strong.
Colombians are sick of stories about drug trafficking. We are also very sick of the way that it has been represented. It was a way to challenge that representation and to make a completely new one. It explores what that process has meant for us as a society, instead of glorifying criminals and assassins, because that’s not the way we see it. Our previous film Embrace of the Serpent opened many doors for us to make a film on a bigger scale, and so everything came together for this film to exist.
ASFF: How can film work towards being more representative and inclusive?
CG: I think in an ideal world you would be watching all kinds of stories from every place. You would be reading books, listening to music and watching all kinds of films. But in this world, curiosity is often very narrow and puts people into small boxes. Art is about opening people’s minds in that sense, and even about showing them different ways of thinking, understanding and living. We are living in a moment in which we have so much creativity happening, and hopefully we’ll be able to find ways to spark the audience’s curiosity for more diverse representations.
ASFF: How does your work engage with, and connect, diverse communities?
CG: The way that our different cultures can be connected in ways that we cannot imagine really fascinates me, and I’ve had that experience with my films. I had a guy from Pakistan tell me: “I don’t understand how you did it, but this is my family. This is the family I grew up with in Pakistan. This is my mother; I could see my mother.” Someone from the Basque country said: “This looks like a Basque family; Basque families are exactly like this.” You could never have imagined that, and it also happened with my previous film Embrace of the Serpent – the Kurdish people would think that was the story of their own people. The way in which storytelling can connect people that have nothing to do with one another is just fascinating.
Birds of Passage is in released in theatres and on demand from 17 May by Curzon Artificial Eye.
Lead image: Still from Birds of Passage.