“I wish this was real”
Wanuri Kahiu’s 2018 romance film Rafiki (Swahili for ‘friend’) was banned in its native Kenya. As the director stated in an interview with TIFF, this happened not because of the film’s portrayal of a lesbian love story, but because of its hopeful ending. The message that same-sex couples could be accepted in Kenya was not one the Classification Board wished to send to the people.
Wanuri Kahiu refused to change it, then – along with other artists – took the case to court, arguing that banning creative expression was a breach of the people’s constitutional rights. She won the case, and when the film was finally released in Kenya for a limited time, it sold out.
Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) is a dutiful daughter and a hopeful young woman, awaiting her examination results to find out whether she will be able to pursue her dreams of going to nursing school. When she meets Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), the daughter of her father’s political rival, the attraction that binds them is immediate. But as their romance blooms, external threats become paralysing obstacles on their path to self-fulfillment. With the eyes of the locals on them at all times, and the physical violence that leaves their bodies and spirits crippled, the two girls find themselves wondering whether the fight for happiness is worth it in the end.
The first thing we notice is Christopher Wessels’ rich cinematography, which, with its soft hues and sensual ambience, nurtures the unspoken elements that would otherwise go unnoticed. There is also the playfulness of the colours on-screen – from the intricate animal prints to the animated personalities. These aim to break down some of the animosity that comes out of the churning gossip mill, locking everyone is a state of apprehension and paranoia.
The sense of being stuck is probed on numerous occasions, mostly in the form of blunt dialogue, which aims to challenge the locals’ perception of femininity. It gives birth to a quiet rebellion against what is referred to as “the typical life of a Kenyan woman”, which entails mostly procreating.
Kena’s shift from thinking of herself as a future nurse to a future doctor is perhaps the film’s greatest revolt against the constraints put on women’s aspirations. Ziki’s role in encouraging this riot, as well as her tireless quest to quell every inhibition Kena has against being herself publicly, is made all the more heart-rending when the stability of her own life is threatened. Both acresses weave their way in and out of genuine tenderness, highlighting the coarseness of the world with professional diligence.
The film’s tension envelops them in a suffocating cocoon, the rigidity of which is underlined by numerous closeups – ones that make the audience wheeze for air. This sense of doom stems partially from the plot’s reference to Romeo and Juliet, with the political rivalry that plays out in the background hanging over them like a bad omen. And as the community turns against the girls in one last desperate attempt to punish them for the sacrilege of their existence, Rafiki‘s joyous exploration of the self is tarnished by tragedy.
Unfortunately, the film does have its drawbacks. It seems that emphasis was placed on the exhilarating stage of seduction and infatuation, leaving the ensuing layers of the plot to quiver with no foundations to lean on. Character development and plot progression seem like last-minute guests at a lavish dinner party, served whatever scraps remain. The dialogue is often vague and seemingly inconsequential, adding to the precariousness of the film’s pacing. All this comes together to give the story a theatrical air, inviting us into a world in which every element is accepted, but never questioned.
Nevertheless, Rafiki’s audacious nature is quite infectious, combing through moments of elation and tragedy to leave the audience harbouring smiles on crestfallen faces. The film’s refusal to gloss over the cruelty of those, who resort to verbal and emotional abuse when confronted with homosexuality is both sobering and, sadly, true to life. In holding its head up high when confronted with the disheartening consequences of prejudice, Rafiki rivals the tenacity of the best international productions out there.
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