TIFF 2018 Dispatch #6: Colombian Tribal Conflict, Serbian Reckoning

TIFF 2018 Dispatch #6: Colombian Tribal Conflict, Serbian Reckoning September 12, 2018
Natalia Reyes, as Zaida, in “Birds of Passage”

Be honest: when you think of the countries of Colombia and Serbia, what are the first things that come to mind?  If you’re like me, it’s narcoterrorism, then civil war and genocide, respectively.

For the sake of my narrative, allow me to push aside my (and likely your) embarrassment over these reductive responses for a moment.  Because at yesterday’s screenings of films from these two countries, their directors fascinatingly said that films about the narcotics trade in Colombia are a rarity, and that films out of the former Yugoslavia with an honest reckoning of responsibility for the civil wars just don’t happen.

At first these statements astonished me, but then I had to take a look at my own national arrogance and provincialism:  as an American, how many of my country’s films have honestly analyzed and criticized our mass killing of Iraqis under false pretenses?  Hell, 50 years later, how many American films have been honest about our role in the millions of deaths in Southeast Asia?  If you think about it, nearly every “courageous” American film about our military adventurism (Platoon, The Hurt Locker, and so forth) is primarily an act of nativist navel-gazing about the effect of war on our own troops.

So now let’s talk about the two mold-breaking films from yesterday.  I was especially keen to see Birds of Passage, by Colombian directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, since their 2015 film Embrace of the Serpent so entranced me with its gorgeous black and white visuals, and its tale of colonial exploitation and death of tradition in the rain forests of Colombia.

For their newest film, Guerra and Gallego have embraced vivid color, while locating their story among the Wayuu Indians of northern Colombia.  Compared to their earlier film, the focus is less on location, though we still see plenty of the desert and scrubland of Wayuu territory.  We also catch glimpses of the local fauna: a heron whose arrival augurs death, red grasshoppers as big as a human hand.

However, the directors are more interested in the traditions of the Wayuu, the largest indigenous tribe of Colombia and Venezuela.  Birds of Passage opens with the coming of age celebration of teenaged Zaida, which includes an unforgettable dance, where she dashes in a circle, a bright red cape trailing behind her in bird-like fashion.

During the ceremony, Zaida catches the eye of Raphayet, a fellow Waayu who seeks to marry her.  Zaida’s mother Ursula, her clan’s matriarch, only agrees with the greatest reluctance, fearing that the man’s time outside the tribe has irreparably eroded his respect for Waayu customs.

Ursula’s concerns seem well-founded.  Soon after the ceremony, Raphayet and an outsider (or alijuna) friend Moncho establish a business relationship with a Peace Corpsman who wants to smuggle cannabis into the US.

Unfolding across the years 1968-1979, and based on similar events across Wayuu territory during this time, Birds of Passage powerfully shows us the tension between greed and simplicity, and tradition versus modernity.  As the wealth of Ursula’s clan grows, their usual barter currency of cows, goats, and necklaces comes to include vehicles and guns.  Wayuu clans that had lived peacefully next to each other threaten to erupt into war.

During the director’s Q&A, Cristina Gallego spoke of collaborating closely with the Wayuu to ensure that her film was true to their customs.  And at the film’s first screening for a couple thousand Wayuu, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Gallego also intended for her film to serve as an allegory for all of Colombia:  as marijuana smuggling morphed into the cocaine cartels, almost the entire country became implicated in the ensuing violence.

Even better, Guerra and Gallego have crafted a work that, while situated in a particular time and place, is simultaneously timeless in its themes.  Giving it the quality of an ancient Greek drama of fate and hubris, Birds of Passage is bracketed by sung narration from a shepherd, a traditional storyteller among the Wayuu.

Leon Lucev, as Vlada, in “The Load”

Don’t let its uninspiring title turn you away; The Load is a haunting, hypnotic film.  The feature debut from Serbian writer/director Ognjen Glavonic, this is a work whose gradually building momentum and curious detours will leave you contemplating its themes long afterward.

The Load opens in Kosovo in 1999, just after NATO has begun bombing the Serbian forces oppressing the Kosovar Albanian population.  Vlada (Leon Lucev) is a truck driver charged with transporting an unknown cargo from Kosovo back into Belgrade, Serbia’s capital.  After finding the main bridge into Serbia blocked by a burning vehicle, Vlada is forced to take unmarked back roads to his destination.

To say much more about the plot would be damaging, for The Load’s exposition only unfurls slowly.  The handheld camera often follows Vlada or shows him in close-up, so we progressively learn that his gruff, taciturn persona (in Lucev’s superbly restrained performance) conceals deeper emotions and ambivalences.

Glavonic’s story often detours, so that his camera will periodically follow someone that Vlada encounters, for a few minutes after the driver leaves the scene.  In this way, we meet a couple of thieving children, and most significantly, a teenaged hitchhiker whom Vlada picks up while still in Kosovo.

Glavonic’s cinematographer, Tatjana Krstevski, has also done marvelous work here, in depicting the desolation of this war-torn region, through impressions both panoramic and minute.  The mountain passes that Vlada drives through are nearly devoid of other vehicles.  Smaller details – a lollipop stuck to a stray dog’s fur, small clusters of fire-setting children – tell of the strangeness of living in a warzone.

Like Birds of Passage, The Load is resolutely grounded in its place and time, while achieving universal themes.  In Glavonic’s film, the grander questions are what we pass along to our children (intended and unintended), and the tension between complicity and bearing witness in times of carnage.

During the director’s Q&A, Glavonic told of the long road towards making his road movie:  seven years, with funding from eleven countries.  The end result of his odyssey is a highly rewarding one; I urge you to seek this film out for yourself.

Birds of Passage:  4.5 out of 5 stars

The Load:  4 out of 5 stars

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