Film & Television

‘Rafiki’: Juliet and Juliet, A Kenyan Love Story

Rafiki, the sophomore effort of director and co-writer Wanuri Kahiu, has already won ten awards at regional, international, and thematic film festivals. It premiered at Cannes in May of 2018, and is currently in limited release in the U.S., the U.K., and the Netherlands. Finding it in Kahiu’s homeland of Kenya is more of a challenge. The movie was officially banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board.

The organization’s C.E.O., Dr. Ezekiel Mutua, claimed that Rafiki contains “homosexual scenes that are against the law, culture and values of the Kenyan people. The film seeks to overtly promote lesbianism. We will not allow the creation, distribution, broadcast, exhibition or possession of any film that offends the sensibilities of the Kenyan people.”

Kahiu brought the issue to Kenya’s Supreme Court, which lifted the ban for a single week so that Rafiki could qualify for Academy Award nominations. In those seven days, the film played to sold out theaters, earning even more at the box office than the international smash hit Black Panther.

Interestingly, Mutua and his board were not that concerned with the movie’s sexual content — it is, in fact, surprisingly chaste. What they objected to was the hopeful ending; they felt that Kahiu’s characters needed to feel guilty and regretful.

“I refused to make it a sad ending,” Kahiu told The Hollywood Reporter. “And I refused to make the characters remorseful. I do not believe in depicting images of Africans as sad and despairing or desperate. That is not my style and that is not my ethos.”

Despite being grounded by a serious issue (homosexuality is still illegal in Kenya), Rafiki is neither sad nor despairing nor desperate. In fact, most of the 85-minute film feels like a joyful celebration. Kahui describes the style as “Afro Bubblegum, art and culture from Africa and people of color, and it just has hope and joy at the center of it. It’s incredibly important to me to show images of hope and joy because apart from what we’re known to be in media and in films, which is people who are always struggling and seeking survival, I feel like we need to show ourselves as people of joy and people in pursuit of happiness.”

Based on the award-winning short story “Jambula Tree” by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko (and co-written for the screen by Jenna Cato Bass), Rafiki tells the story of two star-crossed lovers: pensive, studious tomboy Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and flirtatious, radiant Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). Both girls live in a rundown Nairobi neighborhood, but Ziki’s family has more money and position. Her father (Dennis Musyoka) is a respected local politician. Kena’s father (Jimmy Gathu), a local shopkeeper, is running against him as “the People’s Choice.”

When we first meet Kena, she is skateboarding and through her eyes, Kahiu and cinematographer Christopher Wessels are able to show us just how rich and colorful the city is. Kena’s best friend is a charismatic playboy named Blacksta (Neville Masati), with whom she enjoys rigorous games of soccer, her natural athleticism praised by the boys, who refer to her as “one of the guys.” She cringes when Blacksta assures her that she’ll someday “make a good wife.” She hopes to do well enough on her exams to pursue a career as a nurse.

Ziki is the center of a clique of showy girls, who sing and dance along to Afropop, using outdoor staircases as makeshift stages. With bright pink lips, short skirts, and her head covered in an explosion of pastel-wrapped braids, Ziki appears to be the polar opposite of Kena. They watch each other with apparent interest and curiosity until Ziki’s group tears down one of Kena’s father’s campaign posters and Ziki offers to buy Kena a soda as an apology. They soon find that they have aspirations in common, mainly not to turn into “typical Kenyan girls,” but to “be something real.” Ziki convinces Kena to aim higher, to parlay her stellar grades into a scholarship to become a doctor, not a nurse. Ziki herself longs to travel and “go to all those places where they’ve never seen an African, and just show up there and be like, ‘Yo, I’m here and I’m a Kenyan from Africa.'”

As the two girls tentatively fall in love, they begin to take risks. They’re seen everywhere together, and enjoy a particularly energetic and joyful evening dancing at a local club. Kena turns an abandoned van into a flower-filled, candle-lit nest for Ziki, where they spend the night together. When they wake the following morning, they express reluctance to return to their real lives. The scene is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s famous lovers and Juliet’s protest, “Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day: It was the nightingale, and not the lark, That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.”

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