Interview: Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra Discuss the Making of ‘Birds of Passage’

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Hailed by critics as a Colombian take on “The Godfather”, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s “Birds of Passage is one of the most ambitious films of Latin American cinema. Exploring themes common to gangster epics, “Birds of Passage” adds new dimensions through its tribal setting. In celebration of the film’s festival run and its selection as Colombia’s official Oscar submission, I spoke with Gallego and Guerra about their striking achievement. Below is an edited version of that discussion, with topics ranging from the importance of a female perspective to respecting ancestral spirits.

Shane Slater: How did you both get involved with this project?

Cristina Gallego: We started 10 years ago with a film in that region called the “The Wind Journeys”. That film was also set in the 1960s and while filming we started researching and hearing about the history and the things that happened during that time. And it raised a big question that lead to a desire to do this film, a gangster movie that hasn’t been told. Especially when we knew the codes of behavior of the people and how these families cope with hundreds of family members dying because they were in a war. So it started from there and evolved as we researched.

But it was a very big film and Colombia wasn’t prepared for this kind of film. It was too big for us at that moment. But 4 years ago, the Colombian Film Fund released more funds and then we felt it was the proper moment to start writing in 2014. It was before the shooting of “Embrace of the Serpent” and with things going so well with that film, it was easy for us to finance this film.

SS: As co-directors, did you feel that your individual perspectives brought unique aspects to what we see on screen?

Ciro Guerra: Yes, when you co-direct it becomes a different film. We wanted to give a twist to a genre that has traditionally been about machismo and a celebration of those values. Bringing a female perspective and point of view to a story with very strong female characters felt like a natural development. We’ve had a creative collaboration for a very long time and Cristina has been an integral part of every movie. So it felt like a natural step for her to become co-director for this particular story. It gave it a female perspective which would help to renew the genre.

SS: You have a particularly strong female character in the matriarch Ursula. Was she based on someone real?

Cristina: When we started researching, we went to that region and all the histories were told by men. But as you go deeper into this society, you know that the women are very strong. It made me question what happened to them because they used to be the ones who brought money to the community. They made and sold handcraft and that was the first income for these communities. And they were also the ones who knew Spanish because they dealt with the authorities and organizations outside the communities.

Why are all the stories told from the male side? We started to ask about the women and all the people said no, this is a very male story. Until one moment, someone told us the name of a woman and we started to look for her. And we talked to the actor who plays Anibal (Juan Bautista Martinez), he was an actor in “The Wind Journeys” and he told us we know that woman from 10 years ago because she’s his wife. So we found a real character and we also brought a writer who knew her story. It was a very powerful story.

SS: In our previous interview for “Embrace of the Serpent” you mentioned how the Amazon environment had a significant spiritual effect on the filmmaking. Did you have a similar experience with this film, considering the spirituality in this culture?

Cristina: Yes. It’s something that is very strange to talk about because it’s superstitious. But what we felt when we were shooting this film was something that was very strange for us. And it wasn’t just something in our imagination because most of the people from the crew, almost 80 people, were getting that kind of strange feeling. We had a terrible storm and water destroying our principal sets in the pre-production and also in the production. And at the end, we had a big electrical storm that destroyed the sets.

Through all this time, the local people were saying the ancestors were feeling us and were upset with us. We were praying all the time. Later, we had the feeling that the spirits were helping us. All the things you see in the film – the bright summer at the start, the clouds and storm at the end – were not in the script. They were just natural things that were happening at different moments of the shoot. And we think it made the film better. Even the storm made us rewrite, because we couldn’t access a location. And the rewrite was better. Now that the film is released, we showed it to the indigenous communities and they told us that we are protected and the ancestors are with us. That was something exciting and an honor for us.

SS: There has been so much attention being given towards representation of minority groups in cinema. Since the success of “Embrace of the Serpent” have you noticed any changes in the visibility and demand for these stories of indigenous people?

Ciro: Yes. It definitely opened up a lot of doors, not only for us but for different projects. And it proved that there was an audience that wanted to see these kind of films. People hadn’t seen something like that before and now, there are more projects coming out of South America that give prominence to native people who have been neglected in the past.

For us, when we approached the Wayuu people, they knew the approach we had taken with “Embrace to the Serpent” and they were welcoming to us. They were very open about allowing us to tell part of their story to the world. It wasn’t making a movie about them, but a movie with them. So they were an integral part of the crew. A big percentage of the crew was Wayuu people. Some of them have studied and are interested in storytelling. To have so many Wayuu people in the cast and to have the film be in their language is something they are very enthusiastic and happy about.

“Birds of Passage” opens in select theaters February 13.