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Film Review: Rafiki, ‘A beautiful piece of African cinema that could have won an Oscar’

With the Oscars just passed, the world talks about the winners. Meanwhile, Dublin is hosting the Dublin International Film Festival. One of the films screened at the festival is Rafiki (Swahili for ‘Friend’). The film was the first Kenyan film to be shown at the prestigious film festival in Cannes.

It caused an uproar last year when it was banned in Kenya due to its portrayal of a lesbian love story.

The ban was lifted for one week after the director Wanuri Kahiu went to court saying that the restriction of the film was a violation of her constitutional right to freedom of expression. For a film to be submitted as a foreign entry to the Oscars, it must run for 7 days in a row in its country of origin. The ban was lifted to make the submission possible.

Justice Wilfrida Okwany said that the Kenyan society would not be shaken by a film with gay themes. The lift of the ban was celebrated by the filmmakers and the LGBT community in Kenya. However, the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) was not as happy and released a statement that painted the events as a sad moment and an insult to the Kenyan film industry and morality.

Ultimately, Kenya submitted another film, which was not chosen as one of the nominees. In a year that found the two winners in the best actor/actress categories and best movie category portraying LGBT characters, Rafiki as a beautiful piece of modern African cinema might have had a chance.

So what is the film, that caused so much controversy in its own country about?

The story is based on the short story Jambula Tree. It is set in a lively housing complex in Nairobi and focuses on the relationship between two young women.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are daughters of two rivaling politicians. Ziki comes from a rich family, while Kena is living with her mother after her parents have divorced.

Both women stand out in their own way. Kena is portrayed as rather tomboyish. She is often seen on her skateboard, plays football with the boys and hangs out with guys, more than girls.

Ziki is a free spirit, dressed in bright colours. She wears her hair in multi-coloured braids, bright nail polish and clothes in lively colours and patterns.

Despite their differences and backgrounds Kenna and Ziki befriend each other. What starts out as curiosity and a careful friendship blossoms into love. But homosexuality is forbidden by Kenyan law, as a remainder of British colonial laws.

The local priest regularly preaches against homosexuality and Kena is aware of a homosexual guy who is regularly targeted and beaten up. The women try to keep their relationship hidden but things escalate when one of Ziki‘s friends becomes jealous of Kena.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) on one of their secret dates

When you watch the priest preach about the wrongs of homosexuality, you become painfully aware of the LGBT history in Europe. And what‘ s more, it hits you how there are still many places left that are completely unsafe for LGBT people. But as change marks its way in the small successes the Kenyan LGBT rights activists can claim, the film remains hopeful.

The film comes with serious tones but the way it tells the story of the two young women is hopeful, bright and uncompromising, just as the two main characters are or come to be. The actors do a great job in showing the soft, tender moments between Ziki and Kena. The script, with improvised passages, brings the awkwardness and insecurities that come with first love to live.

Is this the most original film and plot line ever? Yes and no. The story of two young people falling in love is often explored in films, but even in western films young love between LGBT people remains rather underrepresented. In Kenya where homosexuality is punished with up to 14 years of prison this film can have a huge impact.

For an Euopean audience the film brings the vibrant Nairobi neighbourhood to life while showing the struggles of young LGBT people in Kenya. This is a nice change of perspective that gives viewers a glimpse into the daily life of typical Nairobi citizens.

It would have been easy to make this film only about the suffering and struggles of LGBT youths. Instead it is a tender, albeit complicated, love story with strong female characters and it is told without voyeurism.
Official Trailer, Credit IMDb

82 min, English and Swahili with subtitles

What other African films or LGBT films worth a watch do you know? Share in the comments below!

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