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  • Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki
  • Olivier Barlet (bio)
    Translated by Ambre Llorca

Famous for her short science fiction film, Wanuri Kahiu has presented her first feature film at the 71st Cannes Festival in Un Certain Regard, the first Kenyan film to be selected at Cannes. The film, about a lesbian relationship, was banned in Kenya right after.

Kena and Ziki, two young girls living in the same neighborhood in Nairobi, fall in love. It's the beginning of a beautiful story but also of a drama. This is a burning issue but also a brave one for the first feature film of a young filmmaker from a country where same sex relationships equal a fourteen-year sentence in prison! The Cannes Film Festival has often selected African films for their sociological or realist content rather than for their cinematic originality. This is what happens with this film that largely uses the codes that allow it to touch a large audience by convincing them of a simple idea: a homosexual relation is a love story, period.

As Mrs. Atim, the woman who owns the hiding place where the two young women meet, says, she sees and knows everything and keeps telling that to everyone: "It's going to snow in the sun today!" Indeed, in addition to the outrage of a lesbian relationship, it's also because it's between the daughters of two candidates for local elections that they're under the pressure of ruining their campaign. Inspired by the book "Jambula tree" by Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film, whose title means "Friend" in Swahili, has a rather classical construction: they start to get close pretty slowly, then there's the declaration of love, the scandal, followed by violence, the families trying to separate the two and finally, the epilogue a few years later. What is depicted is all very sentimental and prudish: we will only see a few kisses and caresses. Thus there's no reason for everyone to panic. It goes to show that the root of the problem of the film's ban in Kenya and the threats made against the filmmaker is that in this country, homosexuality is considered a crime. [End Page 243]

And this is what the filmmaker is fighting against, she wants to help change people's attitudes by deconstructing the violence faced by the members of the LGBT community. The film is not a plea but a story that was lived and focused on the purity of a romantic relationship. That's how Wanuri Kahiu tries to break down the usual claims saying that homosexuality is unnatural, when man is part of the animal kingdom and observations show that at least a third of the animals has proven homosexual relationships, not for reproduction purposes but simply for pleasure.

It is thus neither unnatural nor a product of Western perversion since it has always existed everywhere, often suppressed so as to avoid punishments. Why is there such violence towards difference? That's the question the film raises when all the two young women want is to live together to pursue their relationship privately, without unsettling anyone.

In an effort to convince people, Wanuri Kahiu has a young style, a fast pace, she often places the camera close to the faces to capture the looks of people trying to find themselves and questioning uncertainties. Throughout the film, there is the type of pop music heard in the long credits while Ziki practices her dancing with her friends. The two actresses play their part perfectly to portray this unlikely relationship given the resistance of their families and the political context. The other lead actors are renowned in Kenya but the two women were unknown. They had to get permission from their families. Wanuri Kahiu had received funds from Government authorities and the National Film Industry. But the KFCB accused producers of changing the original script, in which there were no intimate scenes between the actresses. "We feel that the moral of this film's story is to legitimate lesbianism in Kenya", the board revealed. "Any attempt to introduce and normalize homosexuality in Kenya goes against the law and the Constitution and must be fought...


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pp. 243-244
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