Getting back to one’s roots
by Carmen Diotaiuti, Cinecittà News

The Colombian forests gave rise to the legend of drug-growing tribes and intercenine warfare fueled by profit and honor, as seen in Pájaros de verano (Birds of Passage) by  Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra. The film describes the origins of the drug traffic in Colombia through the story of an indigenous Wayuu family that, over three decades, from the 1960s to the 1980s, gradually gave up their traditional activities to devote themselves to the new, highly lucrative marijuana trade. The drug was shipped from Colombia to the United States by way of the Guajira desert, one of the most inhospitable territories in Colombia. In competition at Noir in Festival, an Oscar nominee representing Colombia, and the film that opened the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, Birds of Passage will soon be released in Italy by Academy Two. We met Carmiña Martínez, one of the stars of the film, at Noir; she plays a matron who strives to keep her family and the entire community together at all costs.

What was it like to act in a film about one of Colombia’s indigenous peoples, the Wayuu - a film that also took you back to your own roots, since your family came from just that part of the country?
True, making this film was like going back to my roots and the origins of my family. The filmmakers created a visual narrative of the ancestral customs of our people, showing fundamental aspects such as birth, the evolution of a woman, and the importance of life, death and dreams. Or the value of one’s word, which must be respected in every case. The directors linked all of these aspects through a golden thread that respects the nature of our community.

The character you play, Úrsula, is a strong woman who will make any decision necessary for the good of her family.
The mother does play a key role. She has to keep everything together and protect her family at all costs. She’s a character with an extraordinary inner strength, nuanced and at many different levels that range from her psychological depth to the lightness dictated by everyday life, as she do and undoes what she’s  done, day in and day out.

Where did you get the inspiration to develop your character?
I started by delving into my own roots, getting back in touch with the entire female line of my family - mothers, grandmothers and aunts - to try to build the character using my family ties and my personal experience. I then tried to understand how family-run businesses work, when a woman runs the whole show. On a third level of investigation, I examined the female characters in the classic Greek tragedies that I have often performed on stage. Lastly, in putting all these elements together, I tried to delocalize the story and make it universal.

The film was co-directed by two filmmakers, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra. How did they split the job on set? Did you sense any difference in the way a man directed you compared to a woman?
It was a question of two different perspectives. Ciro was always very concerned with having us avoid any excessive theatricality; he didn’t want us to go over the top with our acting. Cristina takes the opposite view: she feels the intimate, emotional sphere is very important, and tended to stress women’s solidarity and the emotional component. In fact, the character Úrsula became as strong as she did thanks to the combination of these two visions.

The film suggests that the family is everything to the indigenous culture; where there’s family, there’s respect. Does that still hold today for the Wayuu culture?
Absolutely. Over the years, the Wayuus have preserved their customs and cultivated their traditions. Of which the family is the all-important foundation, the mainstay; members of the family would literally give their lives for each other, taking the consequences to the extreme: should the family need to die out to preserve its unity, it won’t stop that from happening, while protecting and defending each other at all times and for any reason.

The film also stresses the importance of giving and keeping one’s word.
True. One’s word is so important that the "palabrero", the person who brings the word from one community to another, is a real figure who roughly fills the shoes of a lawyer, but without laws or legal codes, basing his activity on an exchange of people’s words that must always be respected.

Dreams are also highly significant in the film. One of the characters calls them "the proof that the soul exists", yet they also appear to have a concrete value as guides to the community’s day-to-day behavior.
The deep respect for dreams is another element that you could say holds the community together. In dreams you can see the future, in the form of symbols to be recognized, accepted and respected. The symbols speak and say what is about to happen, and when they speak, what they say does happen. One further element is equally important: the idea of death. The Wayuus believe that the deceased do not abandon us, and in order for us to remain in contact with them, we mustn’t bury them one time only, but have more than one funeral and even exhume the remains several times.

The drug trade is on everyone’s lips, with more and more hit films and TV series that have turned the association between drug trafficking and Colombia into a cliché. How do Colombians deal with all this attention?
I really don’t know why there is this fatal attraction for the drug trade, in Colombia and the world at large. It’s a fad, a point of departure for many stories and producers have realized that these stories are popular and generate large profits. Why I don’t know, but that’s the way it is. In the ancestral communities that still inhabit these villages, the problem is the young people who would like to go out into the world, which is only right; I myself left the community to study acting. And although I went away, I feel a close bond to my community, and going back to the community is essential.

Women play a central role in the film: they’re resilient, powerful and make all the decisions. The men, on the other hand, tend to appear weak and prone to alcoholism. Is that a real problem in the community today?
It’s not a broad trend throughout the society; it’s no different from what you tend to see in the rest of the world. Guajira is a duty-free zone where alcohol, cigarettes and drugs have always been smuggled in. Which obviously makes it harder to resist temptation. For a Wayuu it’s much easier to get his hands on a bottle of whiskey, which costs more or less the same as a Coca Cola, but actually, in proportion, I don’t think the problem is so significant, numerically speaking.

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