Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a tender and beautifully told story of forbidden lesbian romance in Kenya. This is a defiant depiction of hope and self expression set in a place where gay sex is punishable by fourteen years in jail. Making its world premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and now being screened at various festivals all over the world—including the one I am currently attending in South Africa—should tell you all you need to know. This film deserves to be seen. This rare depiction of love between two women—two black women—is important and necessary in a time when homophobia remains all too prevalent.
Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva star as Kena and Ziki, two women who happen to fall in love in a country that has strict laws against it and where homophobia and traditionalism is rampant in the community they live in. To make matters worse—in the style of Romeo & Juliet—they are the daughters of politicians who are running for office against each other, essentially creating an immediate divide and tension between the two families. Therefore, as Kena’s mother says, they have to “choose wisely” between love and family.
Kahiu directs this story well with a unique vision, showcasing vibrant, authentic Kenyan lifestyle and culture. The upbeat, pop music is excellently utilised, giving it an energetic intensity. The film is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Christopher Wessels in a beautiful haze of bright, rich colours. Bright colours are also reflected in costume design and production design with multi-coloured style buildings and interiors as well as traditional Kenyan clothing. As a South African, it felt very similar to communities in my country, and I loved being able to experience a little bit of Kenyan culture.
The use of colour here is exceptional, similar in style to auteur directors Lynne Ramsay, Wong Kar-Wai and Barry Jenkins (someone whose work is greatly influenced by Wong). Here the main colour is pink and it is an obvious motif for femininity and womanhood. It bleeds into each frame, from gorgeous light pink skies to the pink in Ziki’s multi-coloured hair to the bright pinks of Ziki and Kena’s clothing in the dance club.
The characters of Kena and Ziki are well-written by co-writers Kahiu and Jenna Bass. Each woman has her own thoughts, dreams and goals they wish to achieve. Kena struggles to truly accept who she is and lacks self-confidence to recognize her intelligence and strength. Ziki, seemingly much bolder, helps Kena recognize her own strength and in doing so it also allows her to find self-acceptance. Ziki wants to break free from the burden of traditionalism and domesticity, to not be “the typical Kenyan girl”, instead to travel and live life on her own terms. These messages of self-love, self-confidence and self-expression certainly resonated with me in a powerful, heart-warming way.
The first two acts of the film are lovely to watch: a beautiful exploration of black womanhood, identity and love. However, the momentum that builds initially unfortunately loses its way in the third act with messy editing and dialogue. Certain scenes needed more work. The editing is not always as seamless as it needs to be and some details of plot and characterization could be further developed. As a directorial debut, this is still a strong piece. It is inspiring to see a young African woman direct a film this good. So much so that it has inspired the aspiring filmmaker in me to believe I could actually be able to make a good (hopefully great) film one day, and for that I am grateful.
While the film does have its moments of heartbreak and sadness, it is a mostly uplifting story of love and hope. The ending was the reason the film was banned in Kenya as it was seen as too hopeful. However, because of the defiant strength with which Kahiu fought against the Kenyan government, the film has been allowed to be screened there for a week, in order to be eligible for an Academy Award nomination. While that may not be as incredible as it would be if homosexuality was legalised in Kenya, it is still the right step in the direction towards a future where more stories about LGBT issues get told not only from Western perspectives but also from other, particularly African, perspectives as well.