The best films are something that you can feel while you are watching them. Almost like they happen on another level. Your brain and emotions are fully engaged. While this is an important film because it gives screen time to populations that does not get much exposure (homosexuals, Africans, women), there is nothing inherently subversive about the film. Meaning it is not pointed, though it does manage to make its point. In a fun and sometimes touching way.
Political rivalry between their fathers does not stop young women Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) and Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) from becoming friends…and more than that. Plus they have to deal with falling in love in a community and country in which homosexual relations are illegal. First love with all that baggage and outside pressure is tough. As the two young women are about to find out the hard way.
Kenya, a country changed by their colonizers in many ways, is a conservative country. So much so that homosexuality is against the law. Kenyan girls are expected to become good Kenya wives. Not fall in love with other Kenya girls. You would have to believe that some want more. More than the future Kena pictures for herself being friends with Blacksta (a player who seems to want to marry her) and becoming a wife. Ziki tries to convince her that with her grades she can become a doctor and also be more than someone’s wife in the kitchen cooking.
Love is tricky enough, but when you add in having to choose between it and your own safety the level of difficulty goes up immeasurably. Plus every emotion is already heightened when you are a teenager, so you end up with a rather combustible situation. Which is ably depicted by the director Wanuri Kahui and portrayed by the two young actresses.
They draw you into their lives/tale and do not let you go. I was invested from moment one. Everything about the film enables that. The great music, colourful and then – as tension rises -less colourful wardrobes, the crisp cinematography which makes you think it is happening before your very eyes instead of up on a screen, and the well thought out silences. Everything seems authentic and realistic.
The film, co-written by Kahui, was inspired by the short story written by Monica Arac de Nyeko called “Jambula Tree” about two young girls falling in love in Uganda. Without the benefit of a big budget (director Kahui told us about how she had to try over and over again to get grants to make the film) justice is done to the telling of this important story. Important because it challenges long held beliefs about homosexuality and what love is and means.
Rafiki was the first Kenyan film screened at Cannes and will open doors that way. Hopefully enough that it will be able to be seen by Kenyans in Kenya, but for now the film is banned in the country it depicts. Kahui told us it was not really the love scenes between two women (which are rather tame) that caused the film to be banned rather the fact that the ending was deemed “too hopeful”. Even the cast and crew (other than the director and two lead actresses) has not seen the film. And that is a shame. A crying one.