On Becoming a Guinea Fowl (2024)


On Becoming a Guinea Fowl Review

Rungano Nyoni’s beautiful On Becoming a Guinea Fowl winner of the Best Director award in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year. A24 is releasing it in the U.S, and it feels like one of those movies that will get people talking when more folks can see it. I think that combination of absurdist humor with horrific undercurrents will resonate.

“It’s Shula, Dad. Uncle Fred’s body is on Kulu Road,” says our protagonist (Susan Chardy), flatly, at the beginning of the film. She’s dressed up for a costume party, wearing Missy Elliot’s diamond-studded sunglass mask and fluffy black outfit from “The Rain” video; her deadpan delivery, coupled with her garb, sets the movie’s surreal tone. Talking to her father on the phone, she registers no surprise about having just stumbled upon her uncle’s corpse on a deserted road in the middle of the night.

The father himself sounds less interested in expressing concern than he does asking for money from his daughter who has just returned to Zambia briefly after living in Europe so we might not think much of it when Shula sees herself briefly looking at his body as she walks away from him without taking off her mask. And when her drunk, animated cousin Nsansa (Elizabeth Chiseal) suddenly appears out of the dark, dancing and laughing and screaming and doing all sorts of things that supernaturally restrained Shula never does, we might take it all as further evidence of movie-world weirdness.

We wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but director Nyoni has other plans for us yet. As Shula finds herself within a traditional grieving period over these next few days hierarchical and surreal in its own right she is asked to cook food for her male family members with Nsansa, they are told to stand by while accusations are leveled against Fred’s widow for not grieving properly; they are made to involve another cousin, a sickly young university student named Bupe (Esther Singini), in the proceedings, despite the fact that she seems to be dying of something, possibly a suicide attempt. The world has turned upside-down under the auspices of a traditional funeral. Characters appear randomly from one scene to another. People judge each other based on how high or low they pitch their wails. Each emotion feels like the opposite of what might normally be expected.

And things only get stranger and more sad from there: in an uncanny echo of Shula’s phone call at the beginning of the film, Nsansa tells her father over the phone that his brother is dead (“Uncle Fred’s body is lying in our house,” she says), meanwhile, Shula has begun having visions of herself without her mask seeing Nsansa sitting next to her on a bed, silent and motionless, at some point later on during Fred’s wake, we see Bupe walk right past Shula with her face completely covered no sunglass mask but it registers as normal within this movie world logic, when Shula tries to leave town at one point, she walks past herself trying to hitchhike out just down the road; when she finally does manage to catch a bus out after seeing Nsansa again standing in front of Fred’s corpse without saying anything she sits alone on its roof as it drives away.

As this whole mad ritual unfolds around us we learn more about Shula’s family and why they’re behaving as they are. But while On Becoming a Guinea Fowl keeps up its bursts of startling imagery and heady dream logic throughout, we begin to suspect that these women process unspoken trauma differently for other reasons. The comedy turns into something much scarier than funny eventually, and each woman starts screaming silently inside herself.

All through it, Nyoni cuts to clips from an ancient children’s television program called “Farm Club,” in which a group of kids learn about letters and animals. The host starts giving clues about “a special and unusual animal found in Africa.” It can live up to 20 years and can be brown, red, yellow, black or white. He doesn’t mention the name of the animal at first, but we know that it is the guinea fowl. We will also learn over the course of the film about the unique role guinea fowl play in helping keep other animals safe from predators. This could sound like a heavy-handed metaphor, but that is not what this does; it treats it with such precision as makes one wonder how on earth anyone could have thought so.

But mourning and trauma aren’t the only things that turn human interactions upside down not by a long shot. Shula is told throughout the whole movie not to bring up anything that might ruffle feathers or harm her extended family’s unity or stability. And then everyone else does exactly that. Those who warned against ruffling feathers go ahead and dig up resentments left and right, without caring about family unity or even propriety being observed. This betrayal feels like a ritual too a broader social one that we’re more than familiar with ourselves already here in America. But for all its off-kilter, absurdist charm there is something deeply horrifying at the heart of this movie: every single thing shown within it represents another way cruelty/injustice gets formalized into law. Sometimes staying sane means going crazy

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