Rafiki has missed out on an Oscar nod but has broken boundaries in Kenya

A ban on a movie focusing on a lesbian love –affair was temporarily in lifted in Kenya last week to allow the film to qualify for an Oscar nomination. Rafiki, meaning ‘friend’ in Swahili, became the first Kenya film to show at the Cannes film festival in France earlier this year despite being banned in its home country.

Rafiki was originally banned by the Kenyan Film Classification Board on the basis that it promoted same gender sex which is illegal in that country. The ban was subsequently lifted by the Kenyan High Court on Friday, September 21, as the film needed to be screened for seven straight days to be eligible for a nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2019 Academy Awards. During the seven days when the ban was lifted, the movie enjoyed several sold-out screenings in Kenya.

The film, yet to debut in South Africa, is directed by Wanuri Kahiu who also co-wrote the script, and features prominent Kenyan actresses, Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva in the controversial lead roles.

The film portrays the challenges of same sex relationships in oppressive contexts such as Kenya where sex between people of the same gender is illegal but identifying as gay is permitted. The film set in Nairobi works through the themes of religion, masculinity, homophobia and friendship all interwoven into the portrayal of innocent affection and love between two adolescent teenagers played by Mugatsia and Munyiva. Rafiki depicts the feelings of the two lovers through sound and colour as an extended metaphor throughout the film.

Based on a coming of age novel, on a budget much smaller than that of French film, Call Me by Your Name for example, Rafiki has risen to unimaginable heights due to the strong directing and acting that is maintained throughout the film. The lead actresses’ knowledge of the oppressive society in which the movie is set lends an authenticity to the experiences of the two characters and their ongoing social exclusion.

Cinematically Rafiki is artistically shot with the exaggerated use of sound and colour throughout the one hour and 23-minute-long film.  Kahiu, speaking at an interview at the Cannes Film Festival said that when she thought of how to portray the story, she knew that sound and colour would be central to the film. The setting of Nairobi was perfect for Kahui as it is a bustling city and frantic with an excessive amount of noise and colour. In the beginning of the film, when the girls are not together there is a claustrophobic noise that follows them individually. The colours that they are surrounded by are bright and in your face depicting the harsh reality of the setting.

As the movie nears its end and the girls find themselves together, towards the colour is less harshand lighter. Kahiu and music supervisor Patricia Kihoro selected mainly female musicians to accent the feminine narrative at the centre of the film.

The journey to Cannes was not easy for Kahiu and her crew. The first challenge was financing, it took seven years for Kahiu to find co-producers that would contribute to the film financially. All co-producers were from Europe or the United States, with no African producers wanting to offend the Kenyan government by contributing to the film. Rafiki is an eloquent and tasteful portrayal of young love that shows the brutality that same sex relationships face just purely based on who they chose to love, and the suffocating effects of religion, politics and society has on individuals growing up gay.

Unfortunately, the film missed out on the Oscar nomination but has taken strides in ensuring the fight for freedom of expression is upheld in Kenya, where the ban on the movie has been reinstated.

FEATURED IMAGE: Rafiki tracts the life of two female friends that fall in love.  Photo: Tshego Mokgabudi

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