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TIFF 2021: Drunken Birds

Ivan Grbovic’s film is enchanting and atmospheric, but unsatisfying in its social critique
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Drunken Birds attempts to tell the story of migrant workers. PHOTO COURTESY OF TIFF
Drunken Birds attempts to tell the story of migrant workers. PHOTO COURTESY OF TIFF

Content warning: The plot of Drunken Birds contains discussions of sexual assault.

Drunken Birds — or Les oiseaux ivres in French — is Canadian director Ivan Grbovic’s second full-length film, after his 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) success, Romeo Eleven. In the decade since his last film, Grbovic has made short films and flashy, big-budget commercials for companies like Burger King and Bank of America. Now, he has channelled his eye for visuals into the lush and symphonic Drunken Birds.

Drunken Birds is a story of migration. In Mexico, a young man named Willy gets involved with a drug lord’s wife, Marela. When they’re discovered, Marela flees the country; Willy doesn’t know where she went, his only clue to finding her being a locket her aunt made in Montréal. Willy spends four years working as a seasonal migrant worker in rural Québec. Eventually, he winds up at a farm near Montréal, which is where the story begins.

Migrant workers’ rights are an important topic, now more than ever, because farms employing seasonal agricultural workers have suffered numerous COVID-19 outbreaks over the course of the pandemic due to crowded housing conditions. It often seems like the unprotected nature of migrant farm work in Canada gets overshadowed by similar temporary work schemes in the United States, despite the fact that some 60,000 migrant workers across the country contribute to our agriculture. Grbovic understands this: the film was inspired by his observations of migrant workers in rural Québec.

But Drunken Birds never quite manages to be the damning critique of globalised capitalism it sets out to be. Though the film imbues its cast of Mexican migrant workers with tremendous warmth and vitality, its rebuke of the system they work in doesn’t go much further. The film sweeps you along like an orchestra, but when the music dies down, you’re left wanting more.

A captivating visual experience 

Drunken Birds’ biggest strength is its cinematography. You want to pause and linger over each set piece from co-writer and cinematographer Sara Mishara. The afternoon light of the Québec countryside fills the screen, brushing across the sky in rich colours or lurking in the contours of characters’ faces. Drunken Birds loves dusk, its melancholy and its lighting, and that love comes out in the end result.

The score from Philippe Brault carries the same sense of grandeur. It’s pure emotion, full of harps, drums, and strings. It elevates each scene where it’s given space to be fully heard.

In fact, many aspects of Drunken Birds are a success. The film presents the underrepresented rural Québec setting with charm and great detail. The film’s main performances are gripping. Jorge Antonio Gurrero, best known for his role in the 2018 hit Roma, brings Willy’s heartache to life with great depth. Hélène Florent consistently steals the limelight as Julie, the farmer’s wife whose loveless marriage drives her to pursue Willy. The tiniest touch of magical realism makes the whole shebang feel dreamlike and hypnotic.

However, the actual screentime for the farm’s migrant workers is a mixed bag. Sometimes, it works well, such as when we see the workers hanging out on their Sunday off. They play chess, they listen to music, and they almost get into drunk fights as their friends egg them on in peals of laughter. They are fully human, not just victims of a transnational system of labour exploitation.

But at other times, the lack of developed characters among the migrant workers is keenly felt. Willy is the only fleshed-out character among them; everyone else fades into the background. The film’s decision to make the farming family central to the story instead — prioritizing the experiences of the white and Canadian over the Hispanic and transnational — is a missed opportunity to share important moments like these.

There’s a scene that encapsulates this problem. Willy and the men return to their trailers to find that the Mexican flag they affixed to the top has fallen. Willy reattaches it, and the camera pulls far back into a long shot of his silhouette watching the sunset, pining for Marela. Yes, the film is about men who’ve come to another country for better opportunities, but the camera also keeps them at a distance. Even Willy, who is supposed to be our guide into their lives, is seen only in outline.

Empathy without criticism

Drunken Birds is so deeply invested in humanizing the lives of migrant workers that you can almost overlook its short-sightedness. In one scene, the men visit an internet café on their day off to call their families. We see one man sing a lullaby over the webcam to his child. Another excitedly promises his mother he will be home soon.

But the pain of their separation only shows up in brief moments like this. The poet Robert Hass writes, “Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances.” Drunken Birds leaves too much of that distance implicit. It’s in Willy’s nickname for Marela — Mar, Spanish for “sea” — but without more on-screen presence, the emotional turmoil of transnational migration is not explored well enough.

Crucially, we don’t see how race is interwoven within the film’s plot. In the film’s climax, the farm owner tries to have Willy killed because he thinks he has sexually assaulted his daughter. It’s impossible not to see the parallels to slavery plantations. But that’s as far as Grbovic goes in bringing race into the fold. It’s both impressive for its understatedness but still somehow unsatisfying.

Jenna Hennebry, a migration scholar at Wilfrid Laurier University, wrote that Canada’s agricultural program for Mexican migrant workers demonstrates how “the costs of cross-border movements… are absorbed by migrants alone, while many intermediaries profit from this movement.” Grbovic sadly gives us neither these costs nor a sense of who the profiteers are. We see one farmer benefiting from cheap labour, but not the average person’s dependence on their harvest.

At a time when these migrant worker programs are being slammed for their precarity and poor working conditions, Drunken Birds feels underdeveloped. Don’t get me wrong — it’s enchanting, atmospheric and well worth watching. But while it will leave you with a sense of its protagonists’ humanity, it won’t leave you with an informed impression of their situation.