Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), a Kenyan teenager, works at her father’s corner store while waiting for her high school test results. Her father is running for local government, against a slick, corporate incumbent. When Kena meets the vibrant and aggressive girl Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), their immediate friendship turns to romance – one with the potential for catastrophe in homophobic Kenya.
Back in 2009 Wanuri Kuhui’s extended short film Pumzi presented an Afrofuturist vision of a post-apocalyptic Kenya, and gained a fair amount of international notice. I was hugely impressed by it myself, and hoped that some kind of feature film could follow it – and as soon as possible. Ultimately it has taken almost a decade for that feature to appear, but it has been worth the wait. Kuhui’s Rafiki is a tightly made and emotionally engaging lesbian romance that offers a valuable glimpse into Kenyan society. This is a brave film, given that homosexuality remains a widespread taboo in Kenya. Sex acts between men are specifically illegal, with 14-year gaol terms. There remains pressure for the laws to be rewritten to make acts between woman a crime as well. There is routine harassment of the LGBTI+ community by local police and citizens, and a strong anti-gay rhetoric coming from the nation’s churches – roughly 70% of the population identify as Christian. Kuhui’s film was predictably banned upon release, and it was only its invitation to screen at 2018’s Cannes Film Festival that led the Kenyan government to grudgingly offer Rafiki a one-week run in cinemas before promptly re-banning it.
With all of that in mind, it is not surprising that Rafiki is a comparatively traditional love story, pushed to the point of predictability. It presents two rival families, Romeo and Juliet-style, since Kena’s new love Ziki is the daughter of Lena’s father’s political rival. The developing romance grows over well-worn story beats of coy romance and nervous trysts leading to passionate declarations of love. The real qualities of this film come not from the story itself, but in how Kuhui has elected to present it.
Rafiki inhabits a bright and naturalistic Kenya. Lena lives in a busy city of cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians, and closely packed apartments. There is colour everywhere. Helicopters cruise the sky in a recurring motif: it contrasts with the charm of the colour and light, and makes the environment feel deeply oppressive. There is a constant sense of being observed, and this is enhanced by the sheer number of people around. For Kena and Ziki it leaves them few places where they are not under some kind of observation, and their furtive hiding places feel more intimate as a result. Paired with the helicopter shots are shots of Kena looking up into the blue sky, moments that seem to scream for escape and freedom.
There is a nasty streak that runs through the community, with fire-and-brimstone church sermons and widespread gossip and rumour. It generates so much anger on the leads’ behalf, and in one late night sequence with an angry homophobic mob it turns downright terrifying. The emotion of the place is enhanced by the film’s naturalistic performances. Scenes are very rarely over-played. Mugatsia and Munyiva form a believable and charming couple, rich in charisma and screen appeal. The supporting cast mostly upset and frustrate with well-performed homophobic acts and rhetoric, which sometimes feel positively stifling. Particularly strong is Neville Misati as Blacksta, a male friend of Kena’s with amorous designs for her. Paired with strong character writing, his performance vividly stands out.
This is not simply a well-made film, it is an important one. It transcends its overly traditional narrative to tell something with heart, conviction and great talent.
Rafiki is playing at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival on the 15th and 21st of March 2019. Click here for more information.