Postcard from Cannes #3: Breaking the silence

By Ollia Horton - RFI
Europe  Element / Cannes Film Festival
© Element / Cannes Film Festival

The Cannes Film Festival is not just an outlet for artistic expression – it is a powerful platform to draw attention to social issues. In an unprecedented way, women from around the globe are breaking the silence on the topic of sexual abuse and harassment, both on and off the screen.

On Becoming a Guinea Fowl by director Rungano Nyoni tackles patriarchal traditions in her native Zambia and gives a voice back to those who have been silenced.

“I'm denouncing traditions, but I don't think it's the traditions themselves that are a problem – it's the misogyny in the shape of tradition” Nyoni told RFI's Houda Ibrahim after the premiere in Cannes on Thursday.

The young director – at Cannes for the second time – skillfully uses mesmerising dream sequences mixed with realism and traditional storytelling techniques to tell the story.

It focuses on Shula (played by Susan Chandy), who is suddenly confronted with her past when her uncle Freddy is found dead in mysterious circumstances.

As the family gathers for a long, drawn-out mourning period and funeral, an ugly dark secret emerges and Shula can no longer contain her painful memories. Grief is gradually replaced with anger until the unspoken can no longer be ignored, turning into a kind of “me too” moment on a family level.

Agenda of misogyny

“When you look at traditional Bemba culture, they tell you that men and women are equal. But something happens, it just get warped into the agenda of misogyny, and through victimising women. That's what I'm trying to fight,” Nyoni explains.

“In each culture, misogyny manifests itself in different ways. People always find a way of suppressing women and I don't know why. We all come from different parts of the world but women are experiencing the same thing of being treated so unfairly and unequally.”

Running in Un Certain Regard category, On Becoming a Guinea Fowl continues the themes addressed in Nyoni's first film I'm not a Witch, which was part of the Directors' Fortnight selection in 2017. She was also a jury member for the main competition last year.

It's the second time that Nyoni's heroine is called Shula, named after the director's great grandmother. It's a way of “channelling her legacy”, Nyoni says, emphasising her elder's strength of character and ability to fight against unfair traditions, despite her lack of education.

Nyoni, who was born in Zambia but schooled in the UK, says she deliberately cast people who were not trained as actors in order to create natural scenes, but without falling into a documentary style.

Just like the guinea fowl's cries warn other animals that danger is coming, this film acts as a powerful warning cry.

Stop ignoring

Another plea to break the silence came in the short film Moi Aussi (Me Too) by French actress and director Judith Godrèche.

She stunned the cinema world earlier this year when she filed a legal complaint against two directors who she said abused her when she was a young actress.

“It's important to stop ignoring, pretending, when everyone knows,” she said at the time.

At the César awards – France's Oscars – she went on to call out sexual harassment across the film industry, a move which prompted French MPs to launch a special government inquiry.

Her short film – based on hundreds of victims' testimonials – was screened at the opening night of Un Certain Regard and also at the beach cinema on Wednesday evening.

"I asked myself, how can I use the cinema wisely to share a story that is respectful and considerate of people's experiences," she told RFI.

The challenge for Godrèche was to create an experience that would not just be a documentary, but a form of artistic expression in its own right.

"The cinema is a place where we can feel less alone. It is universal, it can travel,"she said.

A sign that the Me Too movement has gained traction since it hit the news in 2017 in the US, Cannes organisers have this year placed signs in all public spaces around the festival, including in the toilets, advertising a hotline for people to report harassment.