2019, NR, 82 min. Directed by Wanuri Kahiu. Starring Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Neville Misati, Dennis Musyoka, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Nice Githinji.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., May 3, 2019
The love that once dared not speak its name now shouts it from the mountaintops, except in those parts of world that still criminalize homosexuality, where its voice intones barely above a whisper. In the Kenyan film Rafiki (the title is the Swahili word for “friend,” an appellation tinged with bittersweet irony here) the tomboyish Kena (Mugatsia) lives in a modest apartment in Nairobi with an unhappily divorced mother who clings to fundamentalist religious beliefs. Kena works at her recently remarried father’s business while waiting for the national exam results that will define her future: Her social life is limited to hanging out with a couple of homophobic and small-minded male slackers, who both view females solely in terms of their potential as a good wife. One afternoon, she sees a charismatic young woman with pastel-hued yarn dreads casually hanging out on the street with female friends, and their eyes meet just long enough to convey mutual interest. There’s something about this beautiful stranger with a smile that flirts for days, something that beguiles the unworldly Kena and yet frightens her a little too.
Soon, Kena and Ziki (Munyiva) are giddily experiencing the one-two punch of awakened sexual identity and first love, keeping their relationship a secret only to be later ostracized by family and community once they are found out. (The political rivalry between their two fathers campaigning for the same office brings to mind the Montagues and the Capulets.) The storyline adapted from Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story is a familiar one, yet another variation on the opposites-attract lesbian romance you’ve seen before, starting with the groundbreaking Desert Hearts to the dizzily comedic The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love to the rollercoaster ride Blue Is the Warmest Color. What’s extraordinary about Rafiki is that it was filmed in a country that, like most African nations, continues to outlaw gay sex. Initially banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board for promoting illegal sexual acts, the movie (made with international financing) has given the LGBTQ movement there a forceful voice in its fight to overturn those repressive and unjust laws.
While the tone of Rafiki is simple and direct, director Kahiu demonstrates a delicate touch when she enhances Kena and Ziki’s early euphoric attraction to one another through a subtle shift in the otherwise vibrant cinematography by Christopher Wessels. (Nairobi is a vibrant palette of many colors here.) The rose-colored glow that first bathes them as they make small talk during a first date that begins under the shade of a red umbrella at the local kiosk run by the malicious gossip Madame Atim thereafter follows them until they meet one night in an abandoned van hidden under a lattice of pink bougainvillea to consummate their love. It’s a lovely way to reveal the beauty of the bloom just before the petals begin to fade.