Born in Nairobi, before moving to the UK to study Management Science and then hopping across the pond to California for a Masters in Film Production and Directing, you might say Wanuri Kahiu is a pretty well-travelled individual. Now add to that list Sheffield, following the award-winning Kenyan filmmaker’s visit to Showroom Cinema for a Q&A and a screening of her new film, Rafiki.

Forge Press was fortunate enough to spend some time one-on-one with Wanuri earlier that day and it was obvious that this is a passionate, eloquent artist with a clear vision of what she wants to achieve.

“Rafiki is a love story about how two young girls fall in love and how the world around them changes as a result of that love.” That was Wanuri’s succinctly accurate way of describing her second feature film but, make no mistake, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.

Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya, with sexual acts punishable by up to 14 years in prison, and to this day the Kenya Film Classification Board has banned the film. “The banning applies to the distribution, exhibition and possession within the Republic of Kenya. So even owning a copy of the film is illegal at the moment”, Wanuri explains.

The film was not banned purely because of its central lesbian love story, however. The issue they had with it was that the ending was hopeful and joyful. “They said that if I were to change the ending to make it more remorseful, then they would lift the ban. I refused, and therefore it was banned.”

Wanuri did take the Classification Board to court in order to fight the case for freedom of expression, which she describes as “enshrined” in their constitution. Unfortunately, as a relatively young constitution there are no laws supporting that right. She hopes to be part of the movement changing that. “We’re hoping that by taking the Film Classification Board to court, we’ll begin to define what freedom of expression means.”

She did manage to get the ban lifted for seven days in order to have the film running in cinemas and qualify for selection as Kenya’s entry in the Foreign Film category for the Oscars. Sadly it was not selected as Kenya’s flag-bearer but that doesn’t mean the effort was for nothing. “The film was sold out for the week it played and that was remarkable.”

Wanuri is right in the middle of a movement and, with the Kenyan courts set to rule on a law decriminalising homosexuality next month, she is full of optimism and positivity. “The film came at a time when change was beginning to happen, and has added to the tidal wave of change, which continues to happen. But I don’t think that change happened as a result of the film, I think the film is coming at a time when change is already happening.”

Her pride beams through when speaking about that wave she’s riding. “To be a person that champions the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in Kenya is incredible, for the film to help people feel seen is incredible, for the film to start to pick at the erasure of certain types of people in cinema is incredible, and for us to be able to champion love, and love being the most basic human right, is something that I want to continue to do for the rest of my life. And I want to be able to do that with joy and hope in every possible way.”

For, despite her passion for LGBT rights, making an LGBT film was never her priority. “I wanted to make the film because it was a love story, more than anything else, because in my experience growing up there weren’t that many people falling in love in cinema. And I really felt like it was something that was missing. I wanted to add that to the history and the language of cinema in Africa.”

So she set off on a mission to find a love story. And when she found Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story, Jambula Tree, her search was over. So she embarked on translating it into her own Kenyan love story, which today stands in the form of Rafiki. “We were just truly, truly privileged and honoured to be able to translate this beautiful work by Monica and bring it to life”.

Before she could do that story justice, she had to find her two leading ladies. First came Sheila Munyiva, who brilliantly plays the more outgoing Ziki, sporting pink hair and dancing in the streets of Nairobi with her friends. An actress who hadn’t done many lead roles, she went in for an audition and was exactly what Wanuri was looking for.

Samantha Mugatsia, who plays the more reserved Kena, was discovered in a slightly less conventional way. A drummer by trade, she met Wanuri at a party and the director invited her in for an audition. A few years later and she’s a leading lady. “She had never acted before in her life, so this is her first acting role anywhere and she was amazing.”

The two share an electric chemistry, which reflects the film’s greatest asset, the strength of its core relationships. Wanuri did not stop at crafting an authentic romantic connection; she develops the parents of Kena and Ziki too, with the dynamic between Kena and her father particularly effective. “I think so often in African film we haven’t seen very kind or tender depictions of African men. And it was incredibly important that we show that in this film.”

Drowning in colour, the film is vibrant and alive, “we wanted it to be pop and fresh and young and kind of ‘instagrammy’ in its approach.” However, the striking aesthetic pays off most during the darker scenes in the film, which Wanuri lit with a duller palette. The contrast works wonders to depict one particular scene of public brutality with justified rawness.

“That [scene] was incredibly difficult. And you have to remember that one out of five LGBT people are violently assaulted in Kenya. So we had to kind of pay attention to that and show it as well. But it was incredibly difficult to make. It was a really hard scene. But we tried to surround the girls, as we were making it, with as much tenderness as we could.”

Such care runs through the veins of Rafiki; an overwhelmingly positive film which, despite harsh moments, allows the beauty of love to shine through, like a flower breaking through concrete to blossom in the sun.

Wanuri does not claim to be a groundbreaker – she cites a number of LGBT movies from Kenya and across Africa which have come before – but she is certainly an important voice within cinema right now. “It’s not new because love is not new and love has always existed in its multiple forms, even on the African continent. But it is something which I think we’re paying more attention to and something we want to have more conversations about.”

Thanks to filmmakers like Wanuri who are contributing to the stream of LGBT films to come out in recent years, those conversations are being had more and more. And when it comes to Kenya, her optimism remains unflinching: “We have a really amazing, courageous, vibrant, wonderful Millennial and Gen X people who are just so open and aware of themselves and unafraid to claim their orientation in a way that didn’t happen when I was in my twenties, for sure. And it’s so glorious to see.”

Rafiki is currently showing at Showroom Cinema. Check their website for a full list of times and dates.  

Image credit: Movie DB

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