Rafiki directed by Wanuri Kahiu, is the first Kenyan film to depict an LGBT romance on the big screen, and to be accepted by the Cannes Film Festival; where they received a 10-minute standing ovation, at their red carpet premiere of the film, which screened as part of the prestigious Un Certain Regard section of the festival.
Rafiki takes us onto the vibrant streets of Nairobi with a tale of a dangerous love in a conservative community. Two young women; Kena and Ziki, both want more from life than the prospect of marriage and becoming a ‘good wife’. A political rivalry between their families suggests that the girls should be enemies. But, when Kena meets the free-spirited and ambitious Ziki, she is drawn to her. This will be no easy love, as the couple face pressure from their families and prejudice from the broader community.
Despite their success at Cannes, including receiving significant praise from Jury President, Cate Blanchett, who commented that the film was "very powerful and very moving. I thought the performances, as well as the filmmaking—were extraordinary," the film was banned by the Kenyan Classification board who issued the following reason: “Due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans.”
Wanuri Kahiu was born in Nairobi and is part of a new generation of African storytellers. Her films have screened in numerous film festivals around the world, including Sundance. To date, Kahiu has written and directed six films. Rafiki is her second feature film. She’s the co-founder of the media company Afro Bubble Gum.
Steven Markovitz, a producer for Big World Cinema, has produced and co-produced films and documentaries. They’ve gone to the most prestigious film festivals in the world: Toronto, Berlin, Sundance, and Cannes, and even earned an Oscar-nomination for a short film.
Wanuri, Steven and the lead cast; Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, sat down for a group interview about their ground-breaking Coming-Of-Age film, at the 71st Edition of the Festival de Cannes.
What does the “Diversity of African stories” mean to you?
Wanuri: Well, one of the reasons we made this film is because we just do not see enough Africans in love on screen. And growing up, I saw everybody else fall in love. We saw Europeans fall in the love. We saw Americans fall in love. But, we never saw Africans fall in love.
So, it was incredibly important for us to be able to show the love that we have in our lives and the joy, and the frivolity, and the fun—that we enjoy as Africans, seen on screen as well—just to be able to balance the narrative, beyond the single story.
So, can you tell me a little bit about how you found this story and adapted it? It was a Ugandan short story, that you adapted from Kenya?
Wanuri: So, Steven Marovitz “the amazing” was looking for modern African literature to adapt to cinema, and when he said that, I started to read every single love story I could find.
I found it was very important to see ourselves in love, more than anything else; so that Africans could see themselves in love in cinema. So, when we started looking, the story that completely leapt off the page was Jambula Tree, because it was so innocent, and naive, and sweet, and kind. As those are all the elements that I have found to be true in my own life, I wanted to represent those things on screen.
I want to talk about what it is to be LGBT in Kenya. According to Wikipedia: “In Kenya, there are no explicit legal protections for LGBT people. Homosexual acts between men are punishable by five years in prison - and that’s if you’re not injured or killed. Same-sex marriage is banned. According to a Pew survey, 96% of Kenyans believe homosexuality is wrong. According to the Kenyan Human Rights Commission—over 80% of LGBT people who come out to their families—are disowned.”
In this sort of climate, what was the choice and the chance you took, knowing that you needed to do a story (like this), in this sort of climate?
Wanuri: Well, first, we believe in our constitution. That’s the first thing. And our constitution allows us the freedom of identity, We’re allowed to identify however you would like. That is within the constitution.
The problem is, it’s not a problem, but rather—it’s the growing pains of having a young constitution—is, we have to fight to enforce it.
That is what is criminalised and that’s punishable by up to 14 years. But, in order to prove that, you have to violate privacy.
That’s right. You have to have a bedroom police.
Wanuri: So, what is the case at the moment: is challenging the ability to do that. Because, we have a right to privacy, as well, within our constitution. So, the act of proving what is penalised—goes against the constitution itself. So does the case in the court, at the moment. We’re very eager to see what the outcome is.
(To the actors) This was a chance you all took. I know there are movements that are going on in your country. But, still, there’s a lot of hostility around LGBT people. So, when you got the script from Wanuri, what was your reaction?
Samantha: The script is very beautiful. So, I fell in love with the script, and immediately; the relationship started, the trust began to build, and there was love, and there was vulnerability.
Sheila: 2017 was the year that I set for myself to act, and I thought to myself, “If this is the first role that I’m going to take; how would that reflect back on me as an actor, and how would society judge me from that moment onward?”
But the script was sent to me, and like Samantha says, “It was so beautiful”. And through the script; I saw elements in my friends, in their friends, and so many people who hide in the shadows—because it’s illegal for them to exist as they are. So, the script made me feel incredibly privileged, and I knew that I had to tell the story, and my fear disappeared.
What was the reaction of your families?
Sheila: We had to remember that: we were making art. And for example, I don’t think everyone in Hollywood is rich. Many people act as mothers, sisters, lovers etc. So, basically, we are here to tell you that this is for the art lovers, and we are using this medium to express ourselves.
Samantha: I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by so many people who love me and who support me, and who really pushed me to do this film, because of what it means to them, and what it means to the people they love, or to the people around them.
(To Wanuri) What was it to direct them? I mean, you’ve got new material and new actors in this. How did you bring out their love story?
Wanuri: Well, it was very careful. We made sure the girls felt safe and that there was trust between us. And, I promised that I made sure I would represent them in a loving, beautiful manner. It was really important to me that they know that. And, whatever I’m doing is so they can be represented to the best of their ability. And also, because our love for how we want to create and the space we wanted to portray; it was important for them to know that.
Then, we had an incredible acting coach, who worked with the actors beforehand, and she just brought out the best from the actors, and through the workshops. And we were lucky that she was there through the production as well; as an extra support system for them both.
This is a vast co-production: co-production of Kenya, African, Germany, Netherlands, France, Norway, Lebanon, and the United States. So, financing was not an easy thing to pull together. You really had to go international, in many directions.
Steven: I think the challenge with this film is that it took seven years to make and we didn’t receive any financial support from South Africa or Kenya. So, we had to go around the world a few times—to find support—and that took a long time to do that. And so, there are eight co-production partners on the film.
But, somehow, we found a way that the director’s vision was always respected. And, you know, Wanuri had final cut on the film. And so, everyone came on buying into that vision and were incredibly supportive.
And did you have any resistance, given the lesbian content?
Steven: Well, in South Africa, interestingly, I went to my usual funders; three main supporters of film there, and they all rejected the film, and they all gave me the same answer independently, about why they rejected the film. They said, “They didn’t want to put money into a film that would upset another African government.” So, it really became a political decision; not a creative one.
Let’s get to this topic of the banning. So, you were both not surprised and surprised by this. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
Wanuri: Kenya is incredibly cosmopolitan, it’s incredibly progressive. We have access to Netflix, we watch the same movies that the rest of the world watches. So, this topic, this theme, is not a surprise to any of us. We watch it.
So where does it stand now?
Wanuri: We would like to appeal.
We truly believe that this is just about freedom of expression and our constitution allows us that. And we just feel that not only the banning of the film, but the subsequent threats of arrest that have been made by the Kenyan classifications film board, are damaging to the time.
Because what does that say to young filmmakers who want to speak about whatever they want to speak about? We’re telling them not to have ideas. We’re telling them to suppress their stories, suppress they identity; lest it’s approved by the government.
That’s not the world we live in and that’s not the constitution we have. We strongly believe that our constitution—though new—is great and strong. And we believe in that as Kenyans, because, despite our resistance, we are truly patriotic.
Threats of arrest. What does that mean?
Wanuri: The Kenyan film classification board has been making statements about what they have said is an illegal act. However, we have obeyed the letter of the law. We feel that those threats are just to intimidate us.
But we submitted the film, as we have to submit the film to the Kenyan classification board before we shot—we submitted the shooting script. And, after we shot the film.
If we had wanted to break the law; we wouldn’t have submitted the film. We would have just taken it outside of the country. Because we knew we obeyed the law, we wanted the film to be seen in Kenya. We were not afraid whilst we were filming because we had the law on our side.
Do you have hope that the film will open in Kenya one day and do you hope that it will inspire a change in the sentiments towards same-sex marriage in Kenya and Africa?
Wanuri: We truly hope the film will come back. We know that in the past; films, books, art, have been censored. And then, it’s come back and been uncensored. So, there is hope that the film will come back and will be shown in Kenya.
We think of it as living exile, at the moment. And, we do believe, it has already started to change things, because of the attention that the film has received. There has been conversations about the LGBT community and inclusion.
It’s bringing this conversation to really intimate spaces, and we have had to defend to our family and friends why we were making the film, and that is the thing that we wanted the most; to start conversations about inclusion, because, we are all equal under the law. All of us have the right to be.
Rafiki will have its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival on the 9th of June. For more information and to purchase tickets: visit the Sydney Film Festival website.