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.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of the project?
Wanuri Kahiu (WK): 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.
WK: 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.
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.