Art house hit Rafiki banned in Kenya

Wanuri Kahiu’s gorgeous film ‘Rafiki’ has been banned in Kenya, a country that has expressed its hostility for same-sex and LGBTQI

It is the 29th of July, a warm Saturday evening, and the official closing night of the 39th Durban International Film Festival.

Suncoast Casino is abuzz with an eclectic mix of late-night shoppers, gamblers and film buffs.

The cinema complex  is especially full. A large crowd throngs the entrance of the second movie theatre as they gather for the festival’s awards ceremony.

A total of 145 films have been screened over the last 10 days, including a wide range of documentaries, feature films, short films and micro-budget films, in venues across Durban.  Now, 17 filmmakers will be celebrated for their contributions to upholding the festival’s high standards.

Tonight is also the African premiere of Kenyan-born director and filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu’s sophomore project and feature film, Rafiki.

Suzie Noma, a heavy drum-and-synth dancehall track by Kenyan-born songstress Muthoni Drummer Queen, coupled with wide shots of iridescent buildings usher a buzzing and excitable Durban audience into Kahiu’s portrayal of a love story set in Nairobi.  

Inspired by the 2007 Caine Prize-winning short story Jambula Tree by Ugandan author Monica Arac Nyeko, Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Bass have produced a vibrant screenplay with a uniquely Kenyan perspective and sensibility.

Rafiki … is a gorgeous tapestry of images

Rafiki, which is also the Swahili word for ‘friend’, is a gorgeous tapestry of images weaved together to produce a cinematic aesthetic that is best encapsulated by what co-star and actress Sheila Munyiva refers to as “Afro-bubblegum”.

In her 2017 Ted Talk, titled Fun, fierce and fantastical African Art, Kahiu sets out the prescripts of Afro-bubblegum and suggests that the genre should imagine itself as a means to view ‘art for art’s sake’ and not necessarily as agenda or policy based art. For her, Afro-bubblegum is a  work of fiction that goes beyond the bounds of singular and often depressing depictions of Africans and their experiences.

Afro-bubblegum is a means with which fun can be politicised. “Imagine if we had images of Africans that were vibrant, loving and thriving and living a beautiful life. What would we think of ourselves then? Would we think that we were worthy of more happiness? Would we think of humanity through our shared joy?” Kahiu asks her audience.  

Rafiki  certainly addresses some of these concerns. It is a boldly-lit, colourful depiction of a burgeoning  romance between two young women making sense of their affections for one another in a conservative and inherently homophobic society. The script is sharp and humorous. Munyiva and Samantha Mugatsia, who play Ziki and Kena, respectively, bring a tender love story to life with ease and sensitivity.  

That said, however, Munyiva, who portrays the effervescent, pink-haired Ziki, speaks of her initial reticence to take on the role after casting director Nini Wacera called her to tell her about the movie. “I remember being hesitant about the role because 2017 had been the year that I had set out for myself to act ‘properly’ and this was the first film that came,” Munyiva explains in the reception area of her Durban beachfront hotel.

“I remember wondering [if] I may be branded as something  and remember thinking about issues of security once the film was out,” she continues.

Munyiva recalls further how she was preoccupied with whether or not she would find work in her country after the film’s release and if the role would limit her mobility. “But when I  read the script,” she adds, “I realised that it was so beautiful and this changed my mind completely.”

[S]ection 162 (a) and (c) of Kenyan constitution make it a crime for same-sex couples to engage in sexual acts.

Munyiva’s concerns about the reaction to the film back home are not unwarranted. Kenya, after all, is a country that has expressed its hostility for same-sex and LGBTQI relationships through its law. While identifying as a member of the LGBTQI community is not considered illegal under the current dictates of the law, section 162 (a) and (c) of Kenyan constitution make it a crime for same-sex couples to engage in sexual acts.

Despite the fact that the film debuted at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and is possibly the only Kenyan film to do so, Rafiki has not been without controversy in its own country because of its subject matter.

The film has been banned by the Kenyan Film Commission Board (KFCB), which said in a statement that the “homosexual theme [in Rafiki] and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya is contrary to the law”.

Speaking at a conference in Kisumu in April 2018, KFCB chairman Ezekiel Mutua argued that Rafiki should not be distributed, exhibited or broadcast in any form or platform anywhere in Kenya.

“Anyone within the Republic of Kenya found in possession of the film will be in breach of the law and will attract severe penalties.” he said.

But Munyiva says Mutua wasn’t against the film at first. “The most incredible and disappointing thing is that Mutua was the first person to speak about the film. He spoke very highly about it saying that whatever was portrayed in the film reflects Kenyan society and what people are going through. He even called Kahiu a national treasure for doing the film so then for him, less than two weeks later to go ahead and ban the film was shocking and disappointing,” she says.

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