This piece is from our continuing coverage of Sydney Film Festival over the next month. Check out the rest of the content here.
Banned in its home country and the first Kenyan film to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival, Rafiki is both daring and sweet in its earnest, colourful depiction of a lesbian teen romance between daughters of opposing political factions, set on the streets of modern day Nairobi.
In Kenya, homosexuality is outlawed and gay sex faces up to 14 years imprisonment. Just after the announcement that the film would premier at Cannes 2018 Un Certain Regard, Rafiki, or ‘Friend’ in Swahili, was prohibited by the Kenya Film Classification Board for its “clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to law”, a decision which quickly sparked outcries by Kenyan gay rights activists.
It is not the first time Director Wanuri Kahiu has made waves on the international stage. While her short sci-fi film Pumzi was screened at Sundance in 2010 as part of its New African Cinema program, Rafiki is certainly Kahiu’s biggest breakthrough to date.
One particularly moment in the film features the protagonists, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), making an impassioned pact, swearing to “be something real” in defiance of the constraints imposed by their orthodox, closed-minded community. A poignant scene between Kena and her male best friend, Blackstar, portrayed as the otherwise conventional, potential love interest, sees Kena rejecting his offer of love to her. Kena’s retort that money and a mortgage is not all that she wants, feels like a predictable line, yet the energy and conviction in Mugatsia’s delivery saves the scene from falling flat.
Rafiki also does not shy away from depicting violence. While it is often difficult to convey rawness and brutality through the lens in a way that feels authentic, rather than glossed-over or stilted, Kahiu convincingly pulls this off. Essentially, Rafiki knows how to tug viewers’ hearts in just the right places. The film casts light on the role of politics and religion in obstructing the naïve romance Kena and Ziki try to cultivate. Provoked by the swift, developing attachment between the two young women, multiple confrontations between Kena and Ziki, their families, members of the conservative, rigid community and the Church create an atmosphere of mounting social tension.
However, much of the narrative conflict in the film is forced; the ongoing political campaign spearheaded by the girls’ rival fathers acts as a superficial backdrop that heightens the story’s drama. It would have been far more interesting to have seen a deeper exploration of the protagonists’ characters and individual story lines rather than the slightly premature and staged escalation of events the film had.
Overall, Rafiki is more than a contemporary LGBT love story. It is a wholehearted outcry for women and gay empowerment in an orthodox and religious African community. The reprimand said to these women, that “you’re just a typical Kenyan girl”, could not be further from the truth. Indeed, Rafiki’s brilliance stems from Kahiu’s success in depicting the struggle between accepting the conventional, everyday Kenyan life for women and the impassioned desire of the protagonists to break free from this outdated status quo.