Director Wanuri Kahiu discusses her controversial debut feature, Rafiki, a lesbian film which has faced bans in Kahiu’s native Kenya.
Cannes Film Festival premieres are typically eagerly awaited for their big name auteurs – but Wanuri Kahiu’s debut feature, Rafiki, was hotly anticipated for completely different reasons. It’s a Kenyan film about a lesbian romance and was thus banned from its native country, where homosexuality is illegal. The ban was recently temporarily lifted, allowing Kahiu’s film to be screened for a seven-day window that made it eligible to be selected as Kenya’s foreign language Oscar submission (although it eventually lost out to Seventh Row favourite Supa Modo).
It’s frustrating that Rafiki’s political importance means discussions of its quality as a film have been set to one side. It’s a low-key delight: Kahiu has crafted a sweet and winning romance with charm to spare. The love between Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) has the pure and excitable energy of a teen romance. Their lows are harsher and more dangerous than your typical rom-com, but the butterfly highs of fresh infatuation and connecting deeply with another person are just as exhilarating.
Mugatsia and Munyiva make the film. Their effortless chemistry makes us believe that, despite their many differences, Kena and Ziki fit seamlessly together from the get go. Both ensure their characters feel like fully fleshed out individuals, even beyond the limits of a thin script. Mugatsia, in particular, has charisma to spare: early scenes establish Kena’s everyday life hanging out with her friends, around whom she has swagger and easy confidence. She knows how to fit in, and she’s good at it. But even the subtlest of Mugatsia’s gestures clue us in to the feelings she keeps hidden: flickers of discomfort, frustration, or fear. In her first ever screen performance, Mugatsia proves herself a star.
At the London Film Festival, I spoke with director Kahiu about casting her two leads and workshopping their chemistry, as well as using the colour and sound of Nairobi to tell a story.
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Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of Rafiki?
Wanuri Kahiu: At the time, my producer Steven Markovitz was looking for African literature to adapt into African film. I wanted to make a love story, so I started to read lots and lots of love stories from the continent. Then I read Jambula Tree, [the novel from which Rafiki is adapted], which was just so wonderfully written. [Author] Monica Arac de Nyeko had created such a great world, and I wanted to be a person that could bring that world to life.
7R: While this is a socially and politically significant film, it’s also a lot of fun. There’s a colourful opening credits sequence set to energetic music, which acts almost as an assurance that you’re going to enjoy yourself – and I did.
Wanuri Kahiu: It’s falling in love. I was making a film about falling in love, and falling in love is fun, as much as it is angsty and ridiculous. It’s the time when you giggle and blush the most. I wanted to capture that feeling of falling in love.
7R: The colours are so vibrant and vital to the storytelling. For example, Ziki’s lilac hair is reflected in the way the screen is tinged with lilac in some of the sweeter moments. How did you think about using colour in Rafiki?
Wanuri Kahiu: I knew I wanted colour to be able to tell the story of the film. There’s a couple of different metaphors that we use. One of them was that of a rose, so using that metaphor in as many ways as you can think: there’s rose-tinted glasses, but also the progression of the life of a rose — how fresh and new it is at the beginning, and then how sullied it is at the end. We used some of those colours when we were treating the tougher scenes. Then, when treating the the lighter scenes, we use more of the bloom than the wilt.
7R: The sound design is really important, too, as these are characters who must constantly remain aware of their environment and the people around them.
Wanuri Kahiu: Nairobi is naturally a very colourful and sound-filled space, so it was thinking about how to work with the location to try to create the moods we needed to create. It is a story about Nairobi, as well. We used the sound and the noise of Nairobi to create this claustrophobic, omnipresent feeling.
When the girls were together, we pulled away some of that sound. It was much quieter and stiller, as if they were finding their freedom in the stillness and in the quiet rather than in the noise that they’re constantly surrounded by.
7R: Your two lead actresses are both so compelling. How did you cast both of them and make sure that they would work well together?
Wanuri Kahiu: First, we looked for them individually, and they came in two different ways. Sheila came through an audition. With Sam, I had seen her at a party, and she looked the part. We got her to come in for an audition, and she was amazing, so that was super lucky.
I cast Sam before I cast Sheila, so once I knew who Kena was, then I knew how to play Ziki — what would be the differences between them. I started to look for those differences even as I continued to cast, because Sam was firmly in my mind even though she hadn’t said yes.
Then we tested chemistry, and it just worked. They were really playful together.
7R: Did you have a rehearsal period?
Wanuri Kahiu: We had a couple of weeks of rehearsal where we did lots of play. It wasn’t at all line readings. It was more creating relationships and trust.
We used music as part of our rehearsal. We would play different types of music and build relationships as a result. For example, if it was a couple, they would be dancing to music to represent the very beginning of their relationship. The music is super happy. And then we change the tone of the music and have them dance in different ways just to play with that dynamic and explore how it changes. That helps, very quickly, to understand the chemistry between two people.
Keep reading about great queer cinema…
Read Call Me by Your Name: A Special Issue, a collection of essays through which you can relive Luca Guadagnino’s swoon-worthy summer tale.
Read our ebook Portraits of resistance: The cinema of Céline Sciamma, the first book ever written about Sciamma.
Read God’s Own Country: A Special Issue, the ultimate ebook companion to this gorgeous love story.
Recent queer coming-of-agers have excelled at capturing the heady, breathless, angsty, joyous feeling of first love. This complex torrent of emotions is on full display in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name and in the more subdued but just as sensitive God’s Own Country. In Joachim Trier’s Thelma, first love is as terrifying as it is beautiful. This year’s Hearts Beat Loud contains a young love story that is purely sweet and good-natured, but struck with the bittersweet knowledge that it must soon come to an end.