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MOVIES Director Wanuri Kahiu on groundbreaking film 'Rafiki'
by Matt Simonette

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Director Wanuri Kahiu said there was one main idea that drew her to adapt the 2007 short story "Jambula Tree" for the screen: "It was incredibly important for me to show that falling in love is falling in love, anywhere in the world."

After years of effort on Kahiu's part, the resulting film, Rafiki—which translates as "friend," the euphemism many LGBT folks give to their lovers and partners—debuted last year and is just now arriving in many cities in the United States. The film runs at the Gene Siskel Film Center April 26-May 3.

Set in Nairobi, Kenya, Rafiki depicts the burgeoning relationship between Kena ( Samantha Mugatsia ), the daughter of a local merchant and city politician, and Ziki ( Sheila Munyiva ), the daughter of her father's political rival. What starts as an innocent first romance for Kena becomes resistance to one struggle after another. Kena and Ziki must endure homophobia emanating from their church, the toxic masculinity of their male friends and, ultimately, the state itself.

"It was incredibly important for me to make a love story," explained Kahiu. "We don't get to see people from my side of the world falling in love. It's almost assumed that we don't fall in love—we get married and we procreate, but we don't necessarily fall in love."

Kahiu and her colleagues set out to depict Nairobi as an especially sensuous setting in Rafiki. Colors pop from the screen in several moments, from Ziki's colorful outfits to the motorcycle driven by Kena's friend Blacksta. Noises from the cityscape are a constant on its soundtrack, except notably when Kena and Ziki can steal rare and quiet moments together.

"Nairobi is an incredibly colorful place," Kahiu explained. "We had to pay attention to that, and be aware of that. The space we were shooting in it was full of color, and it needed to be part of the technique of the storytelling. We used color ... when the girls were apart from each other, and when they were together, we brought down the colors and made it more subtle and softer, to give them a sense of peace and calm. We did the same thing with the sound."

Rafiki debuted in 2018 as an Un Certain Regard entry at the Cannes Film Festival; it was the first Kenyan film to screen at the festival. But the film's subject matter resulted in it being banned in its home country—except for a one-week run so that the film could qualify as an Academy Awards submission.

"It took seven years to find the financing because people did not want to put money to a lesbian African film," she said. "But we were very persistent, and we were very stubborn. We wanted to create the film, and we also wanted to retain the creative rights to the film. We got some funding from individuals in Kenya, but most of the money came from outside grants and financing."

Kahiu said that she was not surprised by the ban: "They'd banned films before, even cartoons like [Nickelodeon television series] Hey Arnold!, for promoting lesbianism or 'gayism,' which is a uniquely Kenyan word, for creating work that goes against norms and values. So we knew that there was a possibility of being banned. A film before ours called The Stories of Our Lives had also been banned. When it happened, I was more disappointed than surprised."

There was "a very, very kind response" from those who did see the film in its brief exhibition window, Kahiu said. "We just received such love, and an overwhelming amount of support."

Kahiu, who said she has both another film and a television series in the works, has been critical of African filmmakers whose output has largely been formulated in response to non-government organizations and other funders that inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes of African people as Others.

"I make stories of joy and hope," she said. "It's especially important to make stories of joy and hope, especially in the current world, and because we come from a place that is often not displayed with sensitivity and kindness. I have to be quite firm with the way that I create characters and stories that [evoke] the possibilities of what the world can be."

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