Our in-house critic, Wilfred Okiche, was invited to the International Film Festival Rotterdam and is sending dispatches from the front lines of global film, enjoy.
In Wanuri Kahiu’s sophomore film, the tender romance drama, Rafiki, the idea of two adolescents navigating the same sex attraction brewing between them is almost a normal occurrence. One that is just as conventional as sitting for University qualifying exams or any other rite of passage teenagers must deal with as they make their journey into adulthood. It is a testament to Kahui’s skill and sensitivity as a filmmaker that she is able to present a lesbian love affair- a taboo concept in many post-colonial African societies- as a heightened form of normal. The kind that makes parents blush, neighbors chatter while introducing a complicating twist in almost all aspects of life.
Which is not to say that Rafiki for all of its living color, afro-pop soundscape and upbeat depiction of urban living isn’t subversive enough. As detailed from the drama that has enveloped the film back home in Kenya since its Cannes Un Certain Regard debut, cinematic depictions of LGBT relationships on the continent remains at great risk to the filmmakers who dare to give a voice to these underrepresented communities.
The rebelliousness of Rafiki, the first Kenyan film to screen at Cannes is more understated, and perhaps more accomplished, lying in Kahui’s ability to normalize her story and situate it in contemporary Kenyan (Read: African) society, yet at the same time detailing explicitly the challenges and dangers faced by LGBT persons across the board.
Adapted by Kahui and South African Jenna Bass from a story by acclaimed Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko, Rafiki may tick all the boxes expected from coming of age genre films but Kahui keeps things fresh and charming enough to ensure that her film has a viable shelf life long after the headlines and the controversies have settled. The pacing is leisurely but Kahui’s energetic direction is enough to cover up for the flat plotting .
The two teenagers at the center of the story are Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). Their warm romance manages to bloom despite being sired by parents from different sides of the political divide. Rafiki is really Kena’s story as the film starts and ends with her composed, querying gaze. A questioning teenager who isn’t quite sure of her next major steps, Kena finds herself in the middle of her parent’s broken-down relationship.
Her father, John (Jimmy Gathu), recently separated from Kena’s mum, Mercy (a brittle, bitter Nini Wacera) is a shop keeper who is also running for a local council position. Kena spends her days running interference between both parents and waiting for her qualifying exams. She is sure she wants to be a nurse, until she meets the charismatic and more well-to-do Ziki, daughter of John’s rival at the polls. The attraction is instant and Rafiki spends a chunk of its time observing the two ladies dance around their attraction before embracing it full time.
The chemistry between Mugatsia and Munyiva is pure and open and the two actresses are relaxed not just with each other but with Christopher Wessel’s colorful gaze on them. The cinematography in Rafiki is key to how both actresses relate with each other and Wessel bathes them in pastels that not only flatter them but help give vivid life to the story.
The world around the girls, deceptively warm and bright, is emboldened by the homophobic teachings in church and at home. The community is violently hostile to this harmless love and when the repercussions come, inevitably too, it often feels like the screenplay is content to go on a tangent. This involves listing out all the ways that LGBT relationships are still some of the riskiest engagements in societies similar to Kahui’s Kenya.
A film like Rafiki does not have the luxury of simply existing and Wanuri Kahiu soon falls into the trap of placing Rafiki’s sexual and gender politics on its sleeve. But it is a move that is a necessary one, if context is to be considered. This was eventually proven by Rafiki’s hostile reception in Kenya where it was banned by state censors and Kahiu was forced to head to court to force an Oscar qualifying limited run. All of these controversies may not allow a deeper engagement with Rafiki for the time being but it must be noted that whatever its legacy turns out to be, Rafiki is its own quiet achievement.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.