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CANNES 2024 Un Certain Regard

Rungano Nyoni, Susan Chardy • Director of and actress in On Becoming a Guinea Fowl

“It’s about how difficult it is to speak up”


- CANNES 2024: The helmer and the star of this film, about a late uncle’s dark secrets coming to light, talk about being complicit in silence

Rungano Nyoni, Susan Chardy • Director of and actress in On Becoming a Guinea Fowl
Rungano Nyoni (left) and Susan Chardy (© Fabrizio de Gennaro/Cineuropa)

Shula (Susan Chardy) comes across her uncle’s body one night. There is nobody there: just her, the road and his corpse. But if things are already strange, they are about to get stranger, and darker, because dear Uncle Fred’s secrets are about to come out. We spoke to Chardy and director Rungano Nyoni about the Cannes Un Certain Regard entry On Becoming a Guinea Fowl [+see also:
film review
interview: Rungano Nyoni, Susan Chardy
film profile

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Cineuropa: Your film feels universal, even though it features all of these specific traditions and rituals. And you take your time when showing them.
Rungano Nyoni:
It’s difficult to show things from a culture that other people don’t know. You can overexplain it, and I always avoid making something “anthropological”. But then you can become too opaque! I had to think about it during the edit. I wanted to show my culture but without making it feel like National Geographic.

You don’t explain too much, and neither does Shula.
Susan Chardy:
Explaining is easy. It’s much harder when you are telling a story without saying anything, but she is processing it all as she goes along. Towards the end, you find out why she is reacting this way. At first, you just notice it’s not completely normal, to behave like that when you see a dead body lying on the street. She is experiencing all these mixed emotions.

RN: She is internalising everything that’s going on. It’s up to you to figure out what is actually happening.

Why did you want to combine these two extremes, silence and screams?
You have no choice – funerals are that loud and expressive, and deliberately so. That’s how you show that you felt something for the person who died. Many of my protagonists, I am realising it now, are quiet. And they are all called Shula! Susan, you are my third Shula. The first one was louder. Now, so many times, I would say to her: “Sorry, you can’t say anything.” Shula is holding back. It can be hard to “access” her, and it can be a frustrating journey, but hopefully, by the end, it makes sense. And it makes this ending semi-cathartic. I didn’t think about the silence and loudness, but we just finished mixing the sound last week…

…The usual Cannes story…
…Which I thought I would avoid this time, but no. Then they told me we keep doing it, going from loud to silent, and I went: “It’s true!” I didn’t see this dynamic until very late on, but yes, she is quiet and everything around her is mad.

Others are not that quiet, yet they are still hiding horrible experiences. Like her cousin.
That’s the truth of it, isn’t it? Nsansa is not taken seriously because of who she is.

RN: I guess it’s about how difficult it is to speak up. I was interested in how different victims show themselves because I have experienced that myself. People can seem so confident, and yet they are still hiding things.

When you don’t speak up, it continues. It happens to others, who think they are completely alone. It doesn’t work – this oppressive system doesn’t work. So why are other women protecting it?
It’s complicated. For this film, I drew a lot from personal experience. I thought about how we keep our secrets to ourselves. In a family, you know things about them, and they know things about you.

SC: But you don’t talk about it. This is what happens in big families.

RN: Susan, you know Zambia, too, and this is not a society that suppresses women. You find women in high positions all the time, and we never had to fight for equality in that sense, but in others – yes. It’s a strange contradiction. We have secrets we know about, but we can’t talk to each other. Why is that? Why are we complicit in the silence? For so many people who had some kind of trauma in their childhood, it erupts later on in their life, in a very unexpected way. It’s sad to see because they live a pretty normal life and then something breaks when they are in their thirties or forties.

When you keep everything inside, you go mad. Which is why all these strange, fantastical scenes made sense to me. That’s what happens: you literally drown.
I love that we combined all of that in the film. It’s not obvious, either. It’s such an intricate story and a delicate topic, although how can you say it’s delicate when it happens so many times? There were people laughing during the screening. There is nothing wrong with that, but to me, this contrast was so interesting.

RN: I feel there was a time when films did that more often – they were genre-less. Take Fellini! I find his films so liberating because they have everything: the funny, the sad. I actually didn’t know him before, and after I Am Not a Witch [+see also:
film review
interview: Rungano Nyoni
film profile
, someone told me: “You shouldn’t watch so much Fellini, because you are trying to do the same thing.”

For all the dream sequences, I wrote maybe three lines. Because I just didn’t know! I was trying to explain something because she doesn’t speak, but I didn’t want to make them too literal. I also kept a dream journal, and sometimes, I would write something down, thinking: “This would make for a great scene.” Once, I had this dream about water, and I had to put it in. I remembered how it made me feel.

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