So much attention has been devoted to the controversy surrounding Rafiki, the first LGBT film produced in Kenya, that discussions on the film itself have been something of an afterthought. To put it simply, the Kenyan censorship board didn’t have the same rapturous response to the film as audiences at Cannes (where it premiered earlier this year), effectively banning it – only to upturn the ban, submit the film as their entry for the foreign language Oscar, and premiere it to sold out audiences upon opening in Kenya.
For a film armed with significant baggage upon its arrival in the UK festival circuit, where it’s due to play both London and Cambridge Film Festivals this month, what’s remarkable is how innocent director Wanuri Kahiu’s film is. This isn’t a salacious portrayal of a lesbian relationship, of a piece with a film like Blue is the Warmest Colour. In fact, it’s such a sweet natured and widely accessible story of love amidst adversity that the idea of any censorship board watching this and getting outraged is hilarious. Rafiki isn’t a controversial film by any means – in fact, it makes a film like Love, Simon look like Stranger by the Lake in comparison.
Samantha Mugatsia stars as Kena, the daughter of an aspiring local politician, who strikes up a relationship with Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), the daughter of his electoral rival. As the pair go on more dates together, they recognise a growing affection – but as homosexuality is illegal in Kenya, tension grows between the two as to how comfortable they are expressing their feelings in a considerably hostile environment.
The story is as simple as you could expect from a romance in this vein, with even the acknowledgement that the two are daughters of political rivals adding a modernised spin on the forbidden love formula of Romeo and Juliet. Only here, that love really is forbidden; the romantic elements may be softened down to their barest, most innocent essentials, but the ramifications of expressing their love are far from hidden.
Kena is introduced having lunch with two male friends, who casually shout homophobic abuse at a man they believe to be gay. Later on, she visits a church where the sermons specialise in heightened gay panic, with seemingly every member of the community attending around her. One character claims that same sex relationships shouldn’t happen because “God doesn’t want to see that” – and yet the pure affection between Kena and Ziki is the only stable relationship in the film. Kena’s parents are divorced and don’t speak, while all her male friends either sleep around, or undermine their partners by attempting to.
Rafiki isn’t exactly subtle in portraying the blind hypocrisy of the aforementioned characters’ views on LGBT relationships, but then, this is the first time cinema audiences in Kenya have been confronted with a romance story involving them. The narrative familiarity to western audiences, and the very well worn thesis statement of the movie, can easily be forgiven considering who the target audience of the film actually is. This is a film trying to show the simple, universal nature of love, and win over skeptical hearts and minds – and I don’t doubt for a second that this won’t be able to help educate any Kenyan audiences who are allowed to see it.
You’ve heard the story Rafiki is trying to tell before, but this wasn’t made for aficionados of LGBT cinema – in fact, it’s quite upsetting that for audiences in many African countries, this fairly textbook story of love in a time of prejudice will feel prescient. But Wanuri Kahiu’s film is so undeniably charming, and the romantic tale within so sweet natured, that any familiarity in its storytelling can easily be looked past. And if it changes just one Kenyan viewer’s mind about gay relationships, then it’ll be a significant cinematic achievement in spite of its well worn tale.