“The root of oppression is loss of memory.” – Paula Gunn Allen1
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The end of the world is a mansion in the middle of the desert. A beautiful structure in its own cubical way, functional yet chic, stuffed full of markers of wealth and status – ornate European furniture, a prowling black panther paperweight – it stands out on the arid landscape like a sore on healthy skin. It’s a monument to pointlessness, unprotected from the wind and sand that will eventually grind it down to nothing.
The end of the world is the matriarch of her clan, a woman of uncommon fierceness and courage, a vessel of lore, a bearer of memory, yet not nearly as wise as she believes herself to be, sporting a gaudy designer watch. She, who dedicated her life to warding off the apocalypse, couldn’t help but be sucked into and become part of the evil forces that brought it about, and when she’s told, at the end of the end, that she’s worth nothing, she silently nods in agreement.
The end of the world is an orphaned child, holding tightly anything and everything she has left, watching a cloud of swarming locusts bear down upon her head.
These, plus many many other visions of destruction, desolation, and death, constitute the bulk of Pájaros de Verano (Birds of Passage, 2018), the somber Colombian masterpiece that has already drawn comparisons to The Godfather and Breaking Bad,2 and for good reason, as its unapologetic ambition encompasses not only the history and mythology of a forgotten people, but also Homer, Shakespeare, Paradise Lost, The Wasteland, and so much more. It’s the fourth feature film by Ciro Guerra, firmly establishing him as one of the preeminent young cinematic auteurs of South America, although it’s really the first feature co-directed by Guerra and Cristina Gallego, or more accurately by Gallego and Guerra, though, actually, well . . . hold that thought.
David Stannard claims in American Holocaust that “the destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world.”3 Even “holocaust” and “genocide” fall short, for weren’t there dozens of holocausts in the New World, hundreds of genocides, uncounted apocalypses, some of which happened not long after the invaders first landed on the Caribbean, and some of which have stretched and stretched and persist today, in Oklahoma, in Alaska, in the highlands of Central America, in the deserts of Colombia and Chile, in the shrinking Amazon rainforest, centuries-long apocalypses by ten thousand million cuts? “Omnicide” is more like it, the murder of everything.
El Abrazo de la Serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent, 2015), Guerra’s jaw-dropping third feature, is a tale of contemporary Native American life as post-apocalyptic nightmare. Set in the Colombian Amazon, amid the devastation wrought by rubber-greedy enslavers, by white-man’s diseases, by dogmatic and Manichean Christianity, its protagonists are the leftovers, who cling to life out of habit, for they have nothing left to live for. A one-armed wretch, just skin and skeleton, presses the muzzle of a rifle to his forehead and begs to be put out of his misery. A delirious Messiah urges his followers to eat him alive. A gathering of men grind down their sacred flower and literally make a toast to the end of everything. It’s a landscape as bleak as any conjured up in Mad Max or The Road or Children of Men, except infinitely more terrifying, because it happened, because it’s happening right now in parts of our world we choose not to see.
The very last stage of the long long apocalypse, the end of the end, and the overarching interest of the film, is the disappearance of the memories, the stories, the words of those who are gone. Karamakate, its protagonist, long a vessel of lore and a bearer of memory, suffers the tragic fate of living enough to see that final loss, to see himself existing without memory. His only recourse, because life is cruel and justice is a joke, is to pass on as much as he can of the words he can’t remember to one of the people who wiped his out of history. El Abrazo de la Serpiente is a valiant, brilliant, essential attempt at keeping alive some remnant of the memory of Karamakate’s Coihuano people, and of many other unknown Amazonian peoples, impure and mutilated by appropriation as that remnant must by necessity be.
Pájaros de Verano is likewise a chronicle of the end of the end. The focus is now on the Wayúu clans, who inhabit the arid whiteness and sparse sierras of the remote La Guajira peninsula in northernmost Colombia. There, two families related by blood go into business together, with disastrous consequences for all. The white desert is the domain of Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez), this story’s Karamakate, who holds her clan together with the glue of tradition. The green hills belong to Aníbal (Juan Bautista Martínez), who’s fast becoming one of the biggest marijuana growers in the region. The families’ relations are cordial but distant, until young Rapayet (José Acosta) returns from years of exile among the Alijunas, those who’ve forgotten their words and followed the ways of the invaders. Rapayet fancies Úrsula’s beautiful daughter Zaida (Natalia Reyes). Úrsula asks for an outrageous dowry, knowing, hoping, that Rapayet will be able to get a slice of Aníbal’s business and thereby bring prosperity to her own family. But first she has to make sure the young man sees the world as she does. “Do you speak Spanish, Rapayet?,” she inquires. “Yes,” he says, “but I prefer Wayuunaiki.” She nods, her face a mask of stone.
Rapayet delivers, prosperity does come, but prosperity that rests on a putrid foundation – drugs, bribes, murder – that is incongruous with the words that it’s purportedly keeping alive. Viewers looking for Pájaros de Verano to learn about the Colombian drug wars will be disappointed. There are no encounters with the police and the military, except for a quick scene in which a patrol is bribed out of the way, never to be seen again. There are no cameos by Pablo Escobar or the Maoist guerrillas who kept the authorities busy while the Wayúu were becoming dope magnates. There’s little in the way of strategic machinations or turf wars or exciting shootouts, and much in the way of heart-tearing choices – best friend or cousin? mother or daughter? survival or honor? – and many many cold-blooded executions. This is a story of two families destroying each other because their hearts have been rotted away by the apocalypse. When the film begins, the Wayúu are already survivors of genocide, their ultimate disappearance a tragic inevitability, made all the more tragic by the gusto with which they finish the job on themselves. Men fall prey to their lowest impulses, they rape, they humiliate, they fight when they should run and vice versa, while women break each other over conflicting notions of family and loyalty. And so the mansion in the desert, torn to pieces by assassins, and Úrsula the matriarch brought low, “you’re not even worth the bullet, lady.” And so the plague of locusts. And so the blind shepherd-poet singing about the “strong wind coming to erase our footprints from the sand” at the end of the end.
Critics, who overwhelmingly adore it, have taken to calling El Abrazo de la Serpiente “hallucinatory,”4 which is understandable in that it contains a beautifully rendered drug-induced hallucination and in that it recalls tales of insanity in the jungle such as Heart of Darkness and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. This bears noting because, for the protagonists of El Abrazo de la Serpiente and Pájaros de Verano, there is no such thing as hallucinations, there are only dreams, which the bearers of memory are receptive to and understand while we – whites, Europeans, Gringos, caboclos, or Alijunas – do not. The biologist Evan Schultes seeks out Karamakate in El Abrazo de la Serpiente to help him learn how to dream. “Dreams,” says one character in Pájaros de Verano, “are evidence of the soul’s existence.”
Because their makers are aware that they don’t know how to dream, neither film is dreamlike in structure or intent. They are instead constructed as myths, unreal only in the sense of bowing to the needs of story instead of the requirements of fact. “I personally feel very connected to the tradition of storytelling” is how Guerra puts it to an interviewer,5 “in which we try to organize truth, and the events which are disorganized and make no sense and have no point, and we try to organize them through myth to try to understand them.” Both films are ultimately rejoinders to the Métis-Ojibwa leader Louis Riel’s prophetic dictum: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”6
And so, the artists. Before Pájaros de Verano, Ciro Guerra’s films were Ciro Guerra’s. He is credited as writer and director of the intimate La Sombra del Caminante (Wondering Shadows, 2004) and the quietly devastating Los Viajes del Viento (The Wind Journeys, 2009), and as co-writer and director of El Abrazo de la Serpiente. Cristina Gallego, his wife and artistic collaborator for twenty years, is credited as producer of each and assistant editor in a couple of them. Not so for Pájaros de Verano, which was co-directed by Gallego and Guerra (note the order), from a script by María Camila Arias and Jaques Toulemonde Vidal based on an original idea by Gallego (note that IMDB.com lists Guerra as an “uncredited source” of the idea).
It turns out, as Gallego tells it, that her fifteen-year-old son asked her one day why “if you and dad work equally hard, it’s always him giving interviews on television.” Why is his name always on the marquee? After a sleepless night trying to find an answer, Gallego marched to her husband and “sentenced that from then on she would play as big a role as him.”7 And so it’s come to pass. Gallego and Guerra have traveled to film festivals touring with Pájaros de Verano and sat side by side for every interview. They have also, since that crucial conversation, gotten divorced, for reasons they appropriately have not made public and hopefully never will.
This shift from Guerra to Gallego/Guerra matters. It calls for a reexamination of Guerra’s oeuvre to date, especially in light of the extensive similarities between Pájaros de Verano and El Abrazo de la Serpiente. Do the animal spirits that haunt both films come from Gallego or Guerra’s subconscious? To what degree is Toulemonde, co-writer of both films, responsible for these overlaps? Hopefully the answer will reveal itself in future collaborations between the two (it seems from the available information that Gallego is, if at all, only tangentially related to Guerra’s upcoming Waiting for the Barbarians).
Far be it for me to take anything away from Guerra, who’s clearly a world-class talent, and his work, which in a fair world would become the touchstone for filmmakers looking to depict Native American life with honesty and compassion. But Gallego’s open and brazen emergence out of the shadows, her hostile takeover of the front and center, adds an additional dimension to this already extraordinary film. It calls attention to all the voices and stories and words lost when ambitious men put their own egos first and everyone gives them a pass. Much like I had never heard of the Wayúu until Gallego and Guerra brought their words back to life, impure and mutilated by appropriation as they must of necessity be, I had never heard of Cristina Gallego (I had seen three of her films!) until she made me.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are courtesy of The Orchard.
- In History Is a Weapon https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/allenredrootsofwhitefeminism.html. [↩]
- A. O. Scott “‘Birds of Passage’ Review: An Epic Narco Tale That Will Open Your Eyes,” in The New York Times (2/12/2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/12/movies/birds-of-passage-review.html. [↩]
- David D. Stannard American Holocaust (Oxford University Press, 1992), p. x. [↩]
- Scott, ibid; also, e.g., Ben Nicholson “The books, films and trance rhythms that inspired ‘Embrace of the Serpent’” in Film Forever (6/10/2016) https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/interviews/books-films-trance-rhythms-inspired-embrace-serpent. [↩]
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CR9B33VkQM. [↩]
- Quoted in Max Wyman, The Defiant Imagination: Why Culture Matters (Douglas & McIntyre, 2004), p. 85. [↩]
- Armando Neira “‘La película tiene una deliberada visión femenina’: Cristina Gallego” in El Tiempo (8/21/2018) https://www.eltiempo.com/cultura/cine-y-tv/reflexiones-de-cristina-gallego-sobre-el-empoderamiento-de-las-mujeres-258018. [↩]