Thursday, June 13, 2024

“ON BECOMING A GUINEA FOWL”

THE STORYA Zambian woman becomes exasperated when the members of her extended family turn a blind eye to a dead uncle’s crimes.

THE CASTSusan Chardy, Elizabeth Chisela, Henry B.J. Phiri, Roy Chisha & Benson Mumba

THE TEAMRungano Nyoni (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes


This unsettling tale of conspiratorial silence within a grieving family is the second feature from Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni, following her acclaimed 2017 debut, “I Am Not A Witch.” Her new film was recently screened at the Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section after her first was played in the Directors’ Fortnight. “On Becoming A Guinea Fowl” is a marked step in the right direction for Nyoni to continue honing her skills as a gifted and unique storyteller, playing with genre and audience expectations and filtering them through her personal lens.

The film opens with a surreal image that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie: 30-something Shula (Susan Chardy)—wearing a space-age costume—drives home from a fancy party along a deserted road in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. Her attention is drawn to something in the road, and, on closer inspection, it turns out to be the dead body of her uncle, Fred. That discovery leaves Shula decidedly unperturbed, the first hint of what is to come.

Shortly afterward, Shula’s mile-a-minute cousin Nsansa (Elizabeth Chisela) arrives, cackling at the fact that there is a brothel nearby and speculating that “pervert” Fred must have had a heart attack on the premises and has been thrown out into the street. It soon becomes clear that Shula and Nsansa will, somewhat reluctantly, have to play a part in organizing Fred’s funeral, including writing a eulogy. As it turns out, Fred had a dark secret kept which was kept undisclosed by the family, and Nyoni’s clever script is structured so that we only learn the full extent of his crimes in gradual stages. The accumulative effect is rightly horrifying, but an equally sickening revelation accompanies this, as it becomes clear that multiple members of Shula’s extended family were fully aware of Fred’s crimes but chose to keep quiet.

The themes of the destructive power of abuse and the tragedy of silence are powerfully explored, rendered all the more hard-hitting by the way in which the film refuses to offer anything approaching cathartic release. You’re braced to expect a confrontation of some kind – particularly after the last of the revelations – but it never comes, and the result is devastating. Equally heartbreaking, but also oddly admirable in its resilience, is the reaction of the youngest family member to have suffered at Fred’s hands: “He’s dead, so it’s okay.” Nyoni fills the film with unforgettable scenes and moments that will stay with you long after the credits roll. Chief amongst these is a pan around a room full of wailing, grieving women, with Shula resolutely unmoved in the middle of them. To add insult to injury, she’s then admonished for not crying; “Cry a bit,” her mother insists.

Chardy is terrific in the lead role, brilliantly conveying the seething anger eating away inside her yet remaining silent and still on the surface. Similarly, Chisela is fantastic in a scene-stealing comic turn as motor-mouthed Nsansa. She is gifted one of the film’s best moments when she quietly admits that a previous story she’d told Shula wasn’t the entire truth. The film is further heightened by David Gallego’s shadow-heavy cinematography, hinting at the darkness beneath the color of the funeral arrangements, while Nyoni also makes striking use of close-ups throughout, most notably a tightly-held shot of Shula’s facial reaction during a critical revelation.

Nyoni’s “On Becoming A Guinea Fowl” is a natural progression for the Zambian-Welsh filmmaker as many of the elements introduced in “I Am A Witch” find their way into this singular but unified piece of work. Her directorial voice is undoubtedly clear, and for those patient enough to withstand the film’s keeping you at an arm’s distance through most of its runtime, slowly revealing information as it progresses, the overall impact will likely be just as rewarding as it is horrifying and distressing. But for those lacking such endurance, the film may lose them before its true nature even begins to take shape.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - This is a powerful, smartly scripted, and imaginatively directed tale that serves up mystery, heartbreak, and righteous anger in equal measure.

THE BAD - The lack of a conventional resolution is the point of the story, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>This is a powerful, smartly scripted, and imaginatively directed tale that serves up mystery, heartbreak, and righteous anger in equal measure.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The lack of a conventional resolution is the point of the story, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"ON BECOMING A GUINEA FOWL"