By Muniyra Douglas
Poignant. Emotional. Stunning. These are just some of the few words that describe Kenyan director, producer and author Wanuri Kahiu’s latest film, Rafiki.
The East African drama is set in Nairobi and follows the love story and social struggle between two women, Kena and Ziki. However, the colourful, emotionally-charged film is banned in its home country, where homosexuality and homosexual relationships are not legally recognized under Kenyan law.
Wanuri is part of a new generation of African storytellers exploring traditionally controversial narratives. The film was based on Jambula Tree an award winning short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko and was the first Kenyan feature film invited to Cannes Film Festival 2018. For many, Rafiki is long overdue. The film, which took almost seven years to produce, subtly and masterfully blends the love story within Kenyan culture.
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Rafiki brilliantly explores, in just 82 minutes, the beautiful but harsh realities of the characters’ situation. Kena, responsible and calm-tempered, and Ziki, free spirited and charming, performed by Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, respectively explode with undeniable chemistry and relatability. During the love scene we experience the awkwardness with these women, the tight close up – silence prevails throughout the minus their voices.
The audience is taken on this emotionally and physically liberating rollercoaster alongside the couple. There is nowhere else to look or go – as the brilliant cinematography does not allow you to deviate – even for a split second. Viewers must accept their love and like them, feeling the characters’ anxieties and uncomfortable silences.
Rafiki is carried through the vibrancy of Kena and Ziki, their personalities and charm make you root for them. Visually, the film is stunning and colourfully shot. The use of bright, African fabrics and natural colourful landscapes add to the personality of the film. It submerges their love in Nairobi, surrounded by African identity and one can easily get lost in the music, the culture, and the textiles alone.
During a club scene, which finds the women on what can only be understood as their first ‘real’ date, there is minimal dialogue and instead heavy focus on the bright neon colors – Ziki’s hair, Kena’s glasses, clothing and the club music. The audience is so focused on the cultural importance of their relationship, that we drift from the mere simplicity of a love story about two, young women who care about each other.
The story is crafted for the universal audience. The struggle between sexual and cultural identity can resonate Western audiences too. The hopeful tone of the film allows the conversation to continue without assuming a negative conclusion is the only resolution.
Wanuri creates a world for these characters and invites us to experience these feelings of confusion, excitement, confliction and love. These women were able to experience all these emotions, fully and comprehensibly, and we experienced it all along with them.
*Editor’s note: This film was originally screened at the Toronto International Film Festival ‘18