‘On Becoming A Guinea Fowl’ Review: Family Secrets Unravel In Rungano Nyoni’s Zambian Funeral Drama – Cannes Film Festival

Rungano Nyoni made her name in 2017 with her Directors’ Fortnight entry I am Not a Witch, a surreal comedy of sorts in which a young Zambian girl named Shula is forced to choose between being turned into a goat or confessing that she is a witch. Opting for the latter, Shula is sent to a witch camp and put to work in the service of the community, the source of some uncomfortable satire, creating a space for Nyoni to explore the points of conflict between superstition and civilization in modern African society.

On Becoming a Guinea Fowl, by its total alone, suggests something similar, but although the protagonist is also called Shula, Nyoni’s sophomore film is something darker and altogether more serious. This time, the focus is the rub between tradition and modernity, using the occasion of a family funeral as the jumping-off point for a slow-burn drama builds, rather stealthily, to an unexpectedly emotional climax.

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It begins with Shula (Susan Chardy) driving down a country lane in her family’s village, on the way back from a costume party. Shula’s Afro-futurist outfit — a silver headset and a baggy jumpsuit that makes her look like a giant blueberry — is at odds with the rural surroundings, and even more conspicuous when she leaves the car to examine a body lying out in the road. Recognizing the body as her uncle Fred, she immediately calls her mother, who refuses to believe her. “Fred can’t die,” she says. “Just sprinkle some water on him.” But Fred very much is dead, and a pickup truck comes to take him away.

Like the Dogme film Festen, Fred’s subsequent funeral is where the story begins in earnest, and Nyoni takes us right into the custom and pageantry of a Zambian send-off. Death literally comes crawling to Shula’s mother’s home, as some of the family’s womenfolk shuffle over the threshold on their hands and knees. Women, or “aunties”, feature almost exclusively from this moment on, grieving noisily and at length, in stark contrast to the reserved Shula, whose seemingly aloof behavior is regarded with suspicion by the others (“Her eyes are so dry. She doesn’t look like someone who’s just seen a corpse”).

Shula watches the preparations with the detachment of an outsider, noting the increasing cruelty with which Fred’s widow is being treated. The woman is accused of being a bad wife who failed to cook for her husband, and Shula is alerted to an alarming fact about Fred: his predilection for young, younger and much, much younger women. She is soon to find, however, that her family either knows this, like the aunties do, or skeptical, like her lightly estranged father (Henry B.J. Phiri), who prefers to let sleeping dogs lie. “Do you want to dig up the corpse and confront it?” he asks, calling, drink in hand, from a swimming pool in a sparsely attended nightclub that appears to be located in a library.

The dam doesn’t ever break in Nyoni’s elegantly composed drama, which makes the surprise dénouement all the more effective. Explaining two of the film’s key mysteries — that baroque title, and a little girl Shula sees peering quizzically at Fred’s lifeless body — On Becoming A Guinea Fowl wraps up with an ambiguous ending that makes perfect emotional sense while not effectively reconciling anything at all. For his family, Fred’s death is the end of this unsavory matter, but for Shula it just might be the start.

Title: On Becoming A Guinea Fowl
Festival: Cannes (Un Certain Regard)
Distributor: A24
Director-screenwriter: Rungano Nyoni
Cast: Susan Chardy, Henry B.J. Phiri, Elizabeth Chisela
Running time: 1 hr 35 min

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