Outlawed love: Lesbian romance’s Cannes premiere does Kenya proud
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The screening of Wanuri Kahiu’s brave and refreshing “Rafiki”, the first Kenyan film to feature at the Cannes Film Festival, is a milestone for Kenyan cinema and an own-goal for the country’s government.
Homosexual love and sex are so common, graphic and creative – think of the memorable mercy-killing-by-sex in Alain Guiraudie’s “Staying Vertical” three years ago – here on the screens of Cannes, it is easy to forget they are still hardly mainstream in most other places. In countries like Kenya, which has banned its very first movie to qualify for the world’s most prestigious film festival, they are downright illegal.
Filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu has spoken of the excitement and rapture she experienced as a teenager when she first saw a kiss on screen in an African movie – a thrill she thought was the preserve of Western film. Years later, the sense of elation returned upon reading "Jambula Tree", a short story by Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko. It would inspire her second feature movie, a tale of love between the offspring of two rival families, in which both Romeo and Juliet are girls.
“Rafiki” means “friend” in Kiswahili. It is what Kenyan homosexuals call each other to avoid getting into trouble in a country where love is outlawed for same-sex couples (and gay sex can lead to 14 years in jail). That is why the country’s film board has decided to ban Kahiu’s feature, accusing it of “promoting lesbianism” and running “counter to the law, the culture and the moral values of the Kenyan people”.
In an absurd twist, the ban was announced just days after board director Ezekiel Mutua, a self-described “fervent moral crusader”, had hailed Kahiu as an “icon” in an interview with local radio Hot96, and praised her film for addressing issues that Kenyan society was “trying to sweep [...] under the carpet”.
Perhaps because she was hoping to avoid censure, Kahiu’s courageous film ventures tentatively when it comes to lovemaking between its delightful female protagonists, tomboyish Kena (Samantha Muatsia) and fiery Zika (Sheila Munyiva). Its strength lies elsewhere, in the longing gazes, clumsy small talk and awkward silences of the first flush of love.
Following a well-established template that still feels fresh in the Kenyan context, Kena and Zika fall in love – literally, at first sight – thereby incurring the wrath of their families (their fathers are vying for the same seat in parliament) and the wider community. Their forbidden trysts unfold in a self-contained Nairobi district that bridges social divides (the two households are not alike in dignity), where homophobia is rampant and all gather on Sundays to hear the local priest fulminate against gays.
Kahiu’s film has its flaws: the plot is predictable, the dialogues are often clunky, and some of the minor characters feel somewhat caricatural. But it has wonderful freshness and fragrance. “Rafiki” is an explosion of colour, texture and sensuality, a sweet and liberating love story that Kenyan viewers will sadly be deprived of.