Africa is having a moment in the cinematic universe this year. With the introduction of “Wakanda” (via Black Panther) on the critical and commercial landscape, we have since seen Hollywood turn its eyes to the continent greenlighting several upcoming stories that happen there. I even remember seeing a meme after the enormous success of Black Panther that showed Tyler Perry as “Madea” in Africa. The meme suggested that now Mr. Perry might make a “Madea Goes to Africa” film (and with Hollywood, that’s not a far-fetched idea). There isn’t much that is “Hollywood” about Rafiki, though. Rafiki, which means ‘friend’ (and no, that is no Lion King reference – although East Africa did inspire The Lion King), is the new film (and first film) from Kenya to compete in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section (which has its own competition apart from the main Palme d’Or contest). And after watching the film, there was a great feeling of independence that swept over me. “Independent film” is a term that has become so ambiguous from its true origins. It took a film like Rafiki to give me a solid reminder of the brave and going-for-broke intensity that much of indie cinema used to be.
Rafiki, which tells the story of a lesbian romance set in Kenya, is independent cinema on several levels. Firstly, it was independently financed composing of everything from film funds to development labs to private investors. It took its filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu, a vibrant and important new voice in cinema, seven years to raise the total capital. Ms. Kahiu, who made a mark with her Sundance sci-fi short “Pumzi,” a haunting parable about a world without water, is also of Kenyan origins. She lives there between Nairobi and Mombasa. Ms. Kahiu is a celebrated award-winning director and author on the continent, and after years of much hard work, she’s here at Cannes.
Rafiki is independent in voice. It is so fiercely independent that it has been banned in Kenya. At the moment, there is even talk of an arrest warrant for Ms. Kahiu when she returns home to Nairobi or Mombasa. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya, punishable by 14 years in jail. This is due to its Victorian-era law still on the books that dates back to the country’s status as a British colony. This is the case for most of Africa (the only country on the continent where gays and lesbians face no criminal backlash is South Africa) because somehow Africa doesn’t care that the legislation of someone’s personal morality can only (and always) result in aggression and, most tragically, physical violence. Kenya Film Classification Board head Ezekiel Mutua, the same guy who disputed reports last year of two male lions seen copulating on the Maasai Mara National Reserve (he declared they must be possessed by demons), has decreed that Rafiki wrongly normalizes gay sex and that it’s illegal in Kenya even to own a DVD copy of it. And while no actual laws have been broken by “Hollywood” standards of sexual scenes in the film (from what I saw), apparently its themes alone criminalize Ms. Kahiu because it promotes the idea of a woman loving another woman. There was much press about this in the weeks leading up to the premiere here, and, as they say, any publicity is good publicity. This is especially true when the publicity is directed at indie cinema.
Rafiki is an independent in its storytelling, too. The story of Rafiki was adapted from Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story “Jambula Tree,” and as Wanuri told me in our interview it was the “texture and nuance” of the love story that drew her to the material. While the film is essentially a three-act structure film and there isn’t much here we haven’t seen in other gay-themed movies, (especially the ones that deal with a homophobic society), it still feels very fresh in this environment on screen. And Wanuri’s touch, with color, Afropop music and a slice of rural Kenyan all give it something unique. I especially admired the film’s ending, which is no doubt a stroke of an independent filmmaker’s touch.
I have been to Kenya twice, and this movie feels like it was ripped right out of a slice of Nairobi life. This is especially true via its cast and most boastfully the two lead performances in actresses, the subtle and expressive Samantha Mugatsia as Kena and the effervescent Sheila Munyiva as Zuki. Kena dresses and acts like a teenage skate punk, even though she has ambitions to be a nurse, maybe even a doctor. She plays soccer with boys who like her because she “plays like a guy.” Ziki is a dancer in love with all things colorful. You can tell this from her multi-hued dreads and vivid dresses. She’s the more demonstrative of the two women, at first, but together they vow to “be something real” and not just accept the fate of most Kenyan girls, which is to marry men and have children. I hope Hollywood comes calling for all three women stars (Kahiu, Mugastsia and Munyiva). This is one of the year’s best and most important films!
Check out a conversation on Rafiki with Kahiu, Mugastsia, and Munyiva below: