How the first Kenyan film to show at Cannes is helping to rewrite the narrative of LGBT cinema
The first Kenyan film to be showed at Cannes has been banned in its home country.
At the festival screening of Rafiki, famous faces such as Ava DuVernay, Cate Blanchett and Ryan Coogler turned up to offer support outside of their festival duties. On the same day that Janelle Monae released her new album, Dirty Computer, she tweeted in solidarity with the movie – a lesbian love story based on Jambula Tree by Monica Arac de Nyeko.
Director Wanuri Kahiu has been overwhelmed by both the support, and the decision by the Kenya Film Classification Board to ban the film. Rafiki (the name means ‘friend’ in Swahili) is still awaiting a release date in Kenya, and won’t – because Kahiu has refused to change its hopeful ending.
Kahiu recalls how the head of the board, Ezekiel Mutua, reacted to her refusal to change her film: “That’s when he started being aggressive and started to issue threats of arrest,” she says. “Before then, he had been very positive about the film, but he felt if the ending stayed it would mean that members of the LGBT community would be accepted by their society. He did not want the message of acceptance to part of the narrative.”
The official word from the board is that Rafiki was issued a ban “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans”.
It’s taken roughly six years for Rafiki to come to fruition. It was shot entirely in Nairobi over four weeks in 2017 with Kahiu taking great pains to explain the risks and ramifications to her cast and crew. “We sat down with the actors before we started the film and we were very clear what the film was about, and we gave them time to consider if they wanted to be part of it,” she explains. “For the two girls I made it incredibly clear that they would need a support system while they were making the film and people who would support them after the making of the film. It may be banned but we’re taking every precaution to ensure Sam and Sheila are safe. The only person the board could challenge would be me.”
Samantha Mugatsia (a professional drummer in real life) and Sheila Munyiva are the stars of the vibrant, dreamy neon-tinged romance. They play Kena and Ziki, two girls who have just finished school and are awaiting their exam results over the summer. They fall in love and begin a secret tryst but are eventually outed and harshly judged by their community. It’s a typical tale of forbidden love, but it’s infused with a joy and glow that Kahiu describes as Afrobubblegum.
“We truly believe in this idea of Afrobubblegum and giving platforms to young Africans so that we can celebrate their work. We’ve created a genre and it is fun, fierce and frivolous art.” In an atmosphere where filmmakers only receive funding if they push a state-sanctioned agenda, the idea of Afrobubblegum feels radical. “I think for a long time, especially in Kenya, especially coming out of a dictatorship like [Daniel arap] Moi, art has been used to promote national values. I know we’re a long way past Moi, but coming out of that, there’s still a very strong sense of work having to be nationalistic and not in a joyful way, just for the sake of pushing a mostly male agenda. It’s time to say we exist.”
”I want to honour the people I know because I respect them, I love them, and I want them to feel like they have a place in cinema.”
Rafiki not only boasts a female director but women make up the writers, crew members, HODs and trainees. What’s more, the film features a banging soundtrack by young women musicians. “The soundtrack is all women except for one song featuring a male voice. All the women are below the age of 35 which is glorious. We really wanted that to be a thing. It needed to be the kind of music the girls would listen to themselves.”
Throughout her career of making short films and documentaries, Kahiu has stayed true to her personal values, her feminism and her acceptance. “I was always interested in telling hopeful stories. I felt that my films were a reflection of the world I wanted to live in or the world I currently inhabit and the people I know. I want to honour the people I know because I respect them, I love them, and I want them to feel like they have a place in cinema.”
Interestingly, the cinematic touchstones for Rafiki include Pariah by Dee Rees and Mélanie Laurent’s Respire. “They have a sense of freedom in them, and so often there’s a lot of queer cinema that is so hard to watch because there’s a hopeless end to love.” Rafiki stands alongside recent, acclaimed films like Moonlight and Love, Simon, two films which also grant their LGBT characters happy endings, a seismic departure for so much of queer cinema. “The one thing I knew I had to do – with any love story, and definitely a love story that was going to be in an LGBT space – was honour the characters with joy and hope at the end.” A new era in queer cinema is here. It’s welcome.