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‘On Becoming a Guinea Fowl’ Review: A Smart and Unsettling Zambian Drama Depicts a Family’s Reckoning

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The body lays prone in the middle of the road, an undisturbed mass straddling two lanes. Was the person simply a drunk compelled to admire the stars as the world spun? Or did they have an accident?

Shula (a haunting Susan Chardy), the protagonist of Rungano Nyoni’s startling feature On Becoming a Guinea Fowl, didn’t plan to stop, but a pang of recognition beckons her as she drives down a dimly lit road somewhere in Zambia’s capital city of Lusaka. She knows the man: He is her uncle, and by the looks of his body — chest still, eyes wide open — he is dead. 

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On Becoming a Guinea Fowl

The Bottom Line A chilling exploration of silence and complicity.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Susan Chardy, Elizabeth Chisela, Henry B.J. Phiri
Director-screenwriter: Rungano Nyoni
1 hour 35 minutes

That Nyoni’s second project, which premiered at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section, opens with death is unsurprising. The Zambian-Welsh director’s curiosities lean into tragedy. Within its shadowy expanse, she wrestles with and finds levity in the grim, the unsaid and the undesirable. In her debut feature, I Am Not a Witch, Nyoni exposed the hypocrisy of witch camps through a quiet but precocious child. With remarkable control and a heavy dose of absurdity, Nyoni revealed the misogyny embedded within, and the exploitative nature of, these ad hoc communities.

There’s an acidity to Nyoni’s filmmaking, an edge that complicates the humor. Laughing can seem gauche, even taboo. But it’s a tool. “The best way for me to vent this anger was through a cruel humour,” Nyoni said of I Am Not a Witch in a 2017 interview with The Independent, “it’s a Zambian sense of humour.” The director deploys a similar tactic in On Becoming a Guinea Fowl, which confidently swerves between different tones. She fills the film’s tragic frame with comic moments, hints of surrealism, stretches of mystery and pockets of rage. 

Anger bubbles beneath the surface of On Becoming a Guinea Fowl, although it can be hard to tell from its surreal opening moments. As the first notes of the Lijadu Sisters’ hit “Come on Home” plays, Shula appears before us, an alien figure dressed in a black full-body inflatable jumpsuit (costume design is by Estelle Don Banda) and wearing dark shades bejeweled with silver stones. When she comes across her Uncle Fred’s body (Roy Chisha), she hops out of the car and waddles over to inspect it. For a brief moment, Shula’s younger self (Blessings Bhamjee) appears beside her, and both solemnly stare at the corpse. They appear neither frightened nor concerned.

The apparition disappears, and Shula calls her father (Henry B.J. Phiri) to deliver the news. He offers some half-hearted advice and uses the opportunity to ask for money. Moments later, Shula’s cousin Nsansa (an excellent Elizabeth Chisela) happens upon the same road. She is drunk and acting kind of annoying. 

Uncle Fred’s death instigates an unsettling reckoning within Shula’s family and between them and the deceased man’s wife, Chichi (Norah Mwansa). The days-long Bemba funeral rites become sites of confrontations complete with accusations, confessions and resurfaced secrets. At the center of the melee in Shula’s family are Shula, Nsansa and their youngest cousin Bupe (Esther Singini), all of whom were assaulted by Uncle Fred as children. His death reopens their wounds and presents an opportunity for recourse. Whether or not they get to heal is a central thread in Nyoni’s film. Uncle Fred’s new family — a poor young woman and her brood of small children — present another issue. Shula’s mother and aunts dismiss Chichi as a grifter and accuse her of negligence. She didn’t cook for or take care of Fred, they say, and because of that he died. 

Shula anchors On Becoming a Guinea Fowl. Her engagement with the funeral rituals — avoidant, sleepy, mocking and then defiant — act as a barometer for the severity of the familial tension and the threat of certain revelations. At first, Shula tries to escape, leaving home for a hotel. But the aunties show up at her door and, in the first of a series of striking and claustrophobically staged scenes, ask Shula to return, shaming her for leaving in the first place. Nyoni, with DP David Gallego, build On Becoming a Guinea Fowl on close-ups, using them to calibrate the intimate mood. Sometimes the closeness is affectionate and almost maternal; other times it suffocates, enveloping us in Shula’s nightmare. 

Amid the horrors of On Becoming a Guinea Fowl, Nyoni, who also wrote the screenplay, finds a lot of humor. When aimed at the culture of secrecy within Shula’s family, the cracks are acerbic and, at times, corrosive. But they can also be cathartic and self-protective, especially when exchanged between Shula and Nsansa. Like guinea fowls spotting a predator, the pair protect each other. Chardy, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the director herself, and Chisela have an understated chemistry that aids in building their characters’ relationship. Whereas Shula is a quiet observer who finds some comfort in silence, Nsansa launches into monologues and fires off jokes. In them, Nyoni offers divergent models of coping with traumatic experiences. 

Perhaps what’s most impressive about On Becoming a Guinea Fowl is Nyoni’s respect for subtext. Her film doesn’t aim to be a guide, a balm or an ode to forgiveness. The director rejects the ease of over-explanation and allure of an exclusively reverential tone. She reaches for honesty, and what she uncovers is at once disquieting and deeply absorbing. 

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