On Becoming a Guinea Fowl review – Rungano Nyoni’s strange, intense tale of sexual abuse

On Becoming a Guinea Fowl review – Rungano Nyoni’s strange, intense tale of sexual abuse

Rungano Nyoni is the Zambian-Welsh film-maker who in 2017 had an arthouse smash with her debut, the witty and distinctive misogyny fable I Am Not a Witch. Her new film is an oblique, intensely self-aware and often seriocomically strange family drama about sexual abuse. Its final moments give us something of the magic realism that the title hints at, but its playfully and startlingly surreal images are perhaps at odds with the fundamental seriousness of what this film is about. While it’s such an intriguing idea, an almost absurdist scrutiny of what avoidance looks like and how families choreograph their collective denial, there is something a little bit contrived in it and, though always engaged, I found myself longing for some outright passion or rage or confrontation.

On a dark road in Zambia, Shula (Susan Chardy) is driving a car, wearing a strange sci-fi outfit. The reason for her clothes will be given later, but they give a sheen of dreamlike unreality to what happens next: she stops the car, and gets out to look at a dead body by the roadside, lying weirdly calmly, staring sightlessly upward. It is Shula’s Uncle Fred who has perhaps been dragged to this spot by the sex-worker employees of the nearby brothel where he had probably suffered a fatal seizure.

The sight of her dead uncle appears to inspire a strange unemotional blankness in Shula. She tries to get her unreliable dad on the phone but he is uncooperative; her mother (Fred’s sister) is overwhelmed by intense but weirdly performative grief. Shula’s rackety, anarchic cousin Nsansa (a great performance from Elizabeth Chisela) is initially found intensely irritating by Shula but she soon finds a bond with her, chiefly when Nsansa starts telling anecdotes about what Uncle Fred tried to do to her when she was a little girl.

It is up to Shula and Nsansa to help organise the elaborate funeral ceremony, and as the extent of Uncle Fred’s history of sexual violence becomes clear, almost the entire extended family – who are clearly aware of the truth at some level of consciousness – join in a bizarre displacement activity; they blame Fred’s miserable, timid widow for failing to look after him properly and accuse her and her family of being unfit to inherit his estate. Denial dovetails with an ugly grab for money.

Meanwhile Shula is assailed by dream-memories of a children’s TV show she loved while growing up: a show about animals; there was a specific episode about the guinea fowl, whose squawking sound can function as an alarm warning about approaching predators. If only there was a guinea fowl to sound the alarm about Uncle Fred when he was alive.

On Becoming a Guinea Fowl is a complex movie whose meanings and effects are achieved indirectly, and the film shows that some of the ritualistic spectacle may not just be about denial, but also about working through emotions. That’s refreshing, when so much cinema just wants to give you everything on a plate and erase any ambiguity. But I felt that the drama could give us more, and that the excellent actor Susan Chardy herself could also have been allowed to give us more, but the film has an intelligence and a purposeful address to the audience.

Source: theguardian.com