‘On Becoming a Guinea Fowl’ Review: African Story Slips Between Fable and Hard Reality

Seven years ago, Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni made international waves with “I Am Not a Witch,” a mysterious fable that mixed African rituals and folklore with modern-day troubles to tell the story of a young girl accused of witchcraft in a Zambian village. The film premiered in Cannes, won two BAFTA Awards and was the U.K.’s Oscar entry in the international category. It marked Nyoni as a filmmaker to watch.

But she hasn’t made anything to watch since then, which makes “On Becoming a Guinea Fowl” an auspicious return both to Cannes, where it’s competing in the Un Certain Regard section, and to the international film market in general. Like “I Am Not a Witch,” her new film is allusive and elusive, a meditation that operates somewhere between hard reality and fable; parts of it couldn’t be timelier, and parts seem to exist completely out of time.

The film can be confusing, but it’s not meant to be pinned down. And despite the occasionally surreal touches, it’s an examination of how the beauty of tradition can also be an opponent to justice and humanity.

The setup would be simple, if Nyoni hadn’t filled it with odd details. A woman named Shula (also the name of the lead character in “I Am Not a Witch”) is driving through rural country in the middle of the night when she spots a body lying in the road. She gets out and walks over to the body, only to find that it’s her Uncle Freddy, and he’s dead.

Did we mention that she’s driving in the middle of the night wearing an elaborate, glittery mask that covers the top half of her face and much of her head in spangled beads? And that she’s also wearing a giant poofy suit that makes her look like a black version of the robot from “Big Hero 6?” And that she’s soon joined on this remote road by her cousin, who’s wildly drunk but also very concerned about finding the right way to cover the body and wait for the police, who can’t make it until the morning because their only car is being used on government business?

None of this, by the way, is played for laughs. Nyoni’s story is peppered with odd moments, but they’re presented with a deadpan earnestness and a casual surrealism. Shula looks at her dead uncle, walks away, turns back and sees that there’s now a young girl standing over the body; the next morning the body is gone, then it’s back, then it’s surrounded by people.

If it’s disorienting to the viewer, it’s the same to Shula. A woman of the 21st century rather than a traditionalist, she flees to a hotel room when she finds that the furniture is being emptied from her house in preparation for the funeral, only to be chased down by relatives who berate her for leaving – and, curiously, for bathing in the hotel room. “Who ever heard of anyone bathing during a funeral?” one says, as if that’s a glaringly obvious faux pas.

Traditions hold sway, though, so she finds herself going along — though it’s hard to figure out exactly what to go along with. One auntie declares that somebody simply must cook a plate of food for the widow, so Shula does; then another insists, even more authoritatively, that the widow cannot eat a bite until her ex-husband is in the grave, and how dare you bring the poor woman any food.

But culture shock is hardly the central thing that the film has on its mind. In bits and pieces, quiet conversations in the car or in corner of a darkened kitchen and elsewhere, hints are dropped that Freddy most likely died in a brothel and was deposited on the street already deceased — and more disturbingly, that he was likely a serial molester of young female relatives, including Shula.

But tradition holds that an accusation like that had to be kept quiet while he was alive, and it simply cannot be made about the dead man in the presence of the entire family. This gathering is a time to celebrate him and, yeah, to lie about him, and maybe to blame his wife for not cooking for him the way a woman should.

That tension between modernity and custom suffuses the entire film, from the blank look on Shula’s face when she first identifies the dead man to the infuriating extended conversation about how the widow doesn’t deserve any of his estate that occupies the last stretch of the film. And that’s where the titular guinea fowls come in, because they’re birds who squeak and squawk and alert other African wildlife when a predator is nearby. Are their human guinea fowls in this group? Maybe, but it’s not easy for them to be heard.

Nyoni makes her point fairly quietly, because that’s her style as a filmmaker — she doesn’t belabor the points, preferring to keep things vague and impressionistic as the film skips from reality into myth and back.

Like its predecessor, “On Becoming a Guinea Fowl” is bold enough to take a subject that couldn’t be more current and situate it in a setting somewhere outside the bonds of time.

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