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On Becoming a Guinea Fowl

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
On Becoming a Guinea Fowl
Photograph: Cannes Film Festival

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

The director of ‘I Am Not A Witch’ delivers a riveting story of sisterhood and buried trauma in Zambia

Writer-director Rungano Nyoni has a wonderful way of drawing you into a world and intriguing you from the start, gradually peeling back the layers of enigmatic characters to explore Zambian culture.

Her follow up to the lauded I Am Not A Witch sees Shula (Susan Chardy) driving along a road in futuristic garb – she could be in a sci-fi film, though we later learn she’s been at a fancy dress party. She discovers a dead body on a deserted road: it’s her Uncle Fred. As she gazes at the body with a steady expression, we glimpse the younger Shula staring down at him. There is a reason that  Shula isn’t crying about her Uncle Fred – and as her cousin Nsansa (Elizabeth Chisela) rocks up drunkenly, demanding to be let into Shula’s car, you begin to wonder about both their relationships with the deceased. 

There are surreal flashbacks, but the focus is on Shula rather than Fred. Like other recent abuse films such as She Said, the perpetrator is a shadowy, absent figure. The filmmaker doesn’t show their crimes, but the results of them are painfully clear. As Shula dutifully takes part in funeral proceedings with her large middle class family, the impact of Fred’s actions ripples through the community. 

What makes Guinea Fowl especially thought-provoking are the ambiguous relationships between women of different generations. Shula begins to question the reactions of her mother and her aunties, who tend to brush complaints under the carpet rather than challenge the patriarchy.

The ambiguous relationships between women of different generations makes it especially thought-provoking

And the patriarchy runs deep. Despite being an intelligent, modern woman, Shula still immediately complies when an older man asks her to do something. She frequently gives money to her layabout, party-hearty father, the source of the film’s welcome humour.

Visually arresting, Guinea Fowl also boasts a striking score by Lucrecia Dalt. Dark, pulsating notes burn through scenes that might otherwise seem ordinary, exposing Shula’s internal darkness. But Nyoni ends with a message of hope. The guinea fowl of the title refers to an educational cartoon, explaining the behaviours of the bird. This theme builds up to a meaningful finale that pushes for unity with a sense of urgency, as well as something that’s ever-present in Nyoni’s work: compassion.

On Becoming a Guinea Fowl premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Written by
Anna Smith

Cast and crew

  • Director:Rungano Nyoni
  • Screenwriter:Rungano Nyoni
  • Cast:
    • Susan Chardy
    • Henry B.J. Phiri
    • Elizabeth Chisela
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