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Wanuri Kahiu’s lesbian teen romance boasts the sort of bona fides that are proving valuable in this most politicised edition of Cannes. The first Kenyan film to be selected for the festival, Rafiki has since been banned by the country’s film classification board “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans”.
That sort of hyperventilating advance warning might lead some to expect something more transgressive than the sweet if rather contrived drama served up here. Yet, in a nation where no constitutional protections exist for LGBT people and sodomy carries a 14-year term sentence, even the most routine of gay dramas is an act of remarkable risk-taking. Kahiu’s film carries it off with confidence and polish.
Samantha Mugatsia stars as Kena, a tomboyish teen ambling around her provincial Kenyan hometown with her friend Blacksta while she awaits the school exam results that will determine whether or not she will begin training as a nurse. She works for her father John, a local shopkeeper who is running for office in the county assembly on a populist, “man of the people” ticket; his opponent is a slick businessman who seems rather more suited to the corridors of power. John has separated from Kena’s mother, a scripture teacher struggling over their breakup, who is appalled to learn – at church of all places – that John’s new partner is expecting a child. Kena is aware of the pregnancy already, having been tipped off by the town gossip Mama Atim, whose daughter is in love with Blacksta; he, it seems, only has eyes for Kena.
Just as in any village, salacious scuttlebutt is a valuable currency in a locale this local and nothing is more likely to provoke scandal than rumours around someone’s sexuality; in an early scene we witness Blacksta’s previously genial enough friend launch into a vicious homophobic tirade at a young gay man, while Kena and Blacksta hem and haw and generally try to pretend the whole thing isn’t happening. Kena is in dangerous territory, then, when she has her eye caught by Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a forthright, flamboyant girl with rainbow braids, who – disaster of all disasters – happens to be Kena’s father’s election rival’s daughter.
The two begin a tentative friendship that soon progresses into something more, carefully disguised as matiness (Rafiki means “friend” in English). Kisses are stolen in the darkened corners of clubs, and the abandoned camper van that the pair have made their hideout. Ziki, the extrovert, wants them to be more open about their relationship; Kena, wary of the likes of Mama Atim, preaches caution. Cautious too is the coy manner in which Kahiu, likely fearing a smackdown from the classification board, illustrates their eventual lovemaking (not that such circumspection made any difference to the censors).
We’ve hardly been lacking for such tales of forbidden love over the years, and Rafiki struggles to avoid the usual tics and tropes of past brief encounters. Events take on a predictable, procedural quality, particularly when word of Kena and Ziki’s liaisons gets out. The reactions of many of the film’s ancillary characters to their relationship feels cartoonish and glossed-over. Only Kena’s father, forced to weigh up his acceptance of his daughter against his wider desire to effect change in his community, is granted a more complex response.
Still, what Kahiu’s film lacks in originality, it makes up for in its depiction of the giddy flush of first love. Mugatsia and Munyiva have an easy, unfussy chemistry that overcomes some creakier moments of dialogue. They’re matched by some dreamy visuals, with cinematographer Christopher Wessels plucking out pockets of colour wherever they can be found, as with the briefest of shots of a disarmingly vivid row of aubergines slowly ripening in the sun.
Moreover, in a real-world cultural climate that seeks to paint relationships like Kena and Ziki’s as abnormal, there’s a shrewd logic to Rafiki’s conventional framing. Like Love, Simon, it concludes that the best way to win over hostile audiences is through familiar framework. This is a story that may have been told before, sure, but never in this context before. That alone seems worth celebrating.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Rafiki review – groundbreaking lesbian romance aims to change Kenyan hearts and minds | Cannes 2018