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Cannes 2024: On Becoming a Guinea Fowl, The Village Next to Paradise, Viet and Nam

In the three films for this Cannes dispatch, each selection is not only competing in Un Certain Regard. They’re also works where death begets truth. In one film, the truth concerns family secrets. In another, it brings a family together. It also shapes love. These films traverse stories—bleak comedy, family drama, and a queer romance—that might be amongst the strongest assemblage of films I was able to catch at the festival.  

I’m gonna be honest: I’m flabbergasted that “On Becoming a Guinea Fowl” wasn’t in the main competition. Instead, Zambian writer/director Rungano Nyoni’s follow-up to her incredible debut “I Am Not a Witch” is in Un Certain Regard. It’s a mistake. Because “On Becoming a Guinea Fowl” is a magically transcendent, cunningly funny, and arresting piece of cultural commentary that pits the inequalities of tradition against the warmth community can, still, on occasions, provide. 

A cool and collected Shula (Susan Chardy) drives into the opening scene dressed like Missy Elliott in “The Rain” music video. When she comes to a sudden stop, she sees a body lying in the street. It belongs to her Uncle Fred. When she concludes that Uncle Fred is dead, Shula isn’t overwhelmed by grief. She’s detached. Why isn’t she crying? Is she in shock? When her wild cousin Nsana (Elizabeth Chisela) appears, drunk and brandishing a handle of liquor, the tone becomes odder: Nsana simply laughs. And during the early going of the film, we’re left laughing too. Even though the elders want to hold a big, ceremonial funeral for Uncle Fred, it’s clear he was not well liked. The reason behind the distaste this family’s young women feel toward him when revealed, causes a bleak shadow to creep over until every corner is hauntingly consumed. 

This is a ghostly film, and apparitions come in many forms: they arise in Shula’s dreams, which arrive with sporadic fury, about a kids’ program concerning the Guinea fowl that aired when she was child; they are heard in the mournful wailing her aunts crow throughout; they take shape in repressed memories and in the trauma that binds Shula and her cousins together; they happen when Uncle Fred’s wife is unnecessarily blamed for his death. Chardy and Chisela are a forceful team, working behind the emotional masks they’ve put over their respective characters to elicit an overwhelming sense of heartache. The film is also a showcase for Nyoni: delicate editing, informative compositions, and a formidable hold on tone make “On Becoming a Guinea Fowl” a giant leap forward for the filmmaker–one you expect to lead to many more triumphs.  

The Village Next to Paradise” begins on a jarring note: A news program reporting on drone airstrikes in Somalia appears to foretell a war-torn narrative infused with trauma, death, and any number of other triggers. The writer/director Mo Harawe, of course, knows what audiences expect from an African film, initially playing into such tropes with that opening tease before suddenly shifting to something quieter and more personal. Because “The Village Next to Paradise” is actually a family drama, one where Mamargade (Ahmed Ali Farah), a grumpy father, and his sister Araweelo (Anab Ahmed Ibrahim), raise the bright, young Cigaal (Ahmed Mohamud Saleban) in a tiny village. 

In Harawe’s feature debut, Mamargade is ill-equipped to be a father. He is not only saddled with money problems, but he is also a schemer, someone so worried about looking like the bad guy he’ll lie to Cigaal’s face to avoid disappointing the boy. Before long, however, this humble village loses its lone schoolhouse. The former principal recommends that Mamargade send his son to private school—which requires money Mamargade doesn’t have. It also requires Cigaal to be apart from his dad, who, despite his faults, is beloved by the impressionable boy. 

Harawe’s film has some faults that occur in other first-time attempts; you can see where certain frames could be trimmed to not only tighten up the film but also sharpen the emotional impact of certain scenes. We witness Mamargade often spiraling from grief for the woman he’s lost and guilt for the boy who requires far more resources than he could ever hope to provide. Mamargade works several odd jobs; being a gravedigger and smuggler are his mainstays. He is too trusting to be particularly good at any of the gigs, and the world is too ready to take advantage of that kindness. In some ways, this film reminded me of Sembene’s 1963 short “Borom Street”—a work similarly concerned with a gig worker looking to make enough money during the day to buy dinner for his family despite the systemic challenges he faces.  

“The Village Next to Paradise” requires some patience before it gets going. Still, this story of fatherhood and personal sacrifice is a thoughtfully conceived portrait of the sincerity happening in Somalia beyond the headlines. 

The writer/director Truong Minh Quy’s “Viet and Nam” is absolutely hypnotic. It begins in a coal mine; Viet (Dao Duy Bao Dinh) and Nam (Pham Thanh Hai) are sweaty and exhausted—their shirts are wide open. The pair are secretly lovers. We will return many times to their infatuation and their persistent lovemaking amid the sparkling specks of coal that fill their lungs and their hearts with the same intensity as their love. Often recalling “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” Quy’s lithe script still manages to brim with symbolism, parsing the lasting effects the Vietnam War still has on the country. 

The film is split into two parts, with the film’s title card at nearly the halfway point of the film. The first half is more about Viet and Nam as a couple, including the comfort they take from being in each other’s arms and the inherent dangers of going into mines, which routinely emit concussive blasts from the dynamite the miners explode. The second half is more desperate and ruminative. Decades ago, Nam’s father went off to war, never to return. Even now, he tells Viet, just before he’s about to ejaculate, he closes his eyes and sees a faceless figure who could be his dad. A friend of his father and a veteran himself, Ba (Viet Tung Le), believes he might know where the remains are located. The trio, along with Nam’s mother Hoa (Thi Nga Nguyen), traverse the country looking for those remains. 

Within Vietnam, there is a second war raging: Prior to its Cannes premiere, “Viet and Nam” was banned by its home country. The official reason doesn’t appear to be for the queer content; instead, the country has claimed the film paints its people and nation in a terrible light. Whatever the reason, this is an unhurried, tender story beautifully shot by a filmmaker who clearly loves their home. Its romantic elements, sticky and sensual, are equally as intoxicating. Its final shot, a note about immigration, in a film concerned with the hidden post-war scars still healing decades later, is a haunting, bleak image that manages to marry intimate emotion with grand narratives—relying on a pullback that might be the best reveal since Pedro Almodóvar’s audacious conclusion to “Pain & Glory.” That might sound like exceptionally high praise. But Quy’s “Viet and Nam,” a masterwork of emotion and imagery, deserves such lofty admiration. 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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