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Reviewed by:
  • Stories of Our Lives dir. by Jim Chuchu
  • Robin Steedman
Jim Chuchu, director. Stories of Our Lives. 2014. 60 minutes. Swahili and English, with English subtitles. Kenya. The Nest, with UHAI and Big World Cinema. No price reported.

Stories of our Lives is a beautiful collection of five short films about queer lives in Kenya, all based on true stories. It premiered at TIFF (2014) and has since been screened at festivals and has won awards, including the Jury Prize at the Berlinale Teddy Awards (2015) and most recently the Audience Award at Film Africa in London (2015). On the other hand, the Kenyan government banned the film on the grounds that it “promotes homosexuality which is contrary to national norms and values,” as was stated in an official letter to the Nest from the Kenya Film Classification Board. This act of extreme conservatism stands in stark opposition to the film’s message of love and understanding, and, ironically, has made that message all the more important.

The fragmentary nature of the discrete five-part narrative is overcome by its cohesive visual style and by its consistent messaging. The film was shot in a high-contrast black-and-white and with a photographic sensibility in its framing. The opening short, Ask Me Nicely, is a linear narrative about the relationship between two lesbian schoolgirls. After being suspended for this relationship, Kate (Kelly Gichohi) has sex with a neighborhood boy—to figure out if she really is gay—and in the process destroys her relationship with Faith (Janice Mugo). The story is simple, but it establishes the film’s overall message that queer Kenyans are just ordinary people looking for love and self-understanding, not deviants who need to be policed.

Run is about Patrick (Paul Ogola), a DVD seller, and his experience finding and visiting a gay club. During this experience he feels real joy, but his happiness collapses when his friend Kama (Allan Weku) beats him up and threatens his life. Kama does not want to be seen as gay by association and would rather kill Patrick than risk this. Patrick escapes, and the following scene cuts between his running through Nairobi and replayed scenes of the events leading up to his flight. This quick cutwork shows us his motivation. However, the epilogue, in which Patrick states he is “done running,” feels hollow. The message is an empowering one, but because we do not see his evolution this feels like a political message inserted into the film rather than one developed through it.

Athman takes the film in a new direction as it is not about persecution, but about unrequited love. Ray (Tim Mutungi) is in love with his straight best friend, Athman (Maina Olwenya). The central moment of the short is a scene of the two men in Ray’s bedroom on his farm talking about their relationship and the way they feel about each other. The situation is almost resolved when Ray brashly asks for a kiss, leaving them at a standstill. Ray is tormented by his unrequited love for Athman and ultimately makes the decision to leave the farm in a moving reclamation of his own agency. Athman chases after Ray, but does not catch him, and in a tracking shot of him desperately running and then staring sadly out the gates of the farm, we see that he is also heartbroken. [End Page 236]

After this poignant moment the film again changes pace with Duet. Jeff (Mugambi Nthiga), while on a business trip in the U.K., fulfills his desire to have sex with a “white guy,” in this case a prostitute. Their transactional relationship becomes something more as the two men sit and talk, inches apart but not touching, on the bed. At first the awkwardness is palpable, but it gradually yields to an often humorous intimacy, and finally an erotic encounter. In a context in which homosexuality is pathologized and criminalized, filming sex with emotional resonance and beauty—achieved here through the use of close-ups and extreme close-ups of the two men’s faces and kisses instead of more graphic shots—is a powerful statement.

The film discusses the...


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pp. 236-237
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