Coming-of-age feels fresh in lesbian first-love film ‘Rafiki’
Jim Moster | Friday, November 2, 2018
If you were to take Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu’s “Rafiki” and pick a scene at random, you’d think you’re watching a lighthearted story of teenage friendship. A girl in a yellow sweatshirt performs sporadic kick-flips on her skateboard through the bustling streets of Nairobi. Her friend unapologetically sports hot-pink braids. The two share laughter on whirling carnival rides and glow with neon paint as they dance in the blacklight of a nightclub.
However, it wouldn’t take long to stumble upon a scene that illustrates why the Kenyan Film Classification Board has banned “Rafiki” in the country — the two girls are not friends, but lovers.
The plot, loosely based on the short story “Jambula Tree” by Monica Arac de Nyeko, unravels in the midst of a heated political election. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), an aspiring nurse and daughter of one of the candidates, spends her time shooting the breeze with her friends Blacksta (Neville Misati) and Waireri (Charlie Karumi) at a local cafe and playing soccer on an otherwise all-male team. To Blacksta, she “has always been one of the guys.” Kena notices Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), the daughter of her father’s political opponent, performing a dance on the streets one day. In a country where homosexuality is punishable by up to 14 years in jail, the stage is set for a high-stakes story of forbidden love — but “Rafiki” finds a way to transcend beyond a queer “Romeo and Juliet.”
In a matter of minutes and with little conversation beyond introductions, Kena and Ziki head over to the cafe on their first date. Despite the movie playing into the cliche of love at first sight, their relationship rapidly develops poignant and believable emotional depth. As Kena and Ziki sit on a rooftop shrouded by colorful garments blowing in the wind, Kena expresses her desire to “go to a place” where they “could feel real” and forms a pact with Ziki to be more than “typical Kenyan girls.” The two young women inch across the boundary between laying low and embracing these convictions in a series of tentative interactions before surrendering to a night in each other’s embrace.
Wanuri Kahiu masterfully depicts the strenuous balancing act between passion and self-preservation that queer people must maintain when surrounded by homophobia. Admittedly, this concept is a staple of LGBTQ cinema, but the film’s impressionistic representation of Kena and Ziki’s intimacy revitalizes the old trope. Many of their interactions are spotted with momentary disconnect between dialogue and on-screen action, giving the viewer a sense of the incorporeal euphoria they experience in each other’s presence. The film suggests that our yearning to be grounded in our identities can’t be satiated in any physical location, rather, we must be grounded in each other to truly “feel real.”
This theme further manifests through Kena and Ziki’s romantic hideaway, a dilapidated van concealed within a thicket of trees outside of the city’s urban center. The van feels safe and ethereal (Kena bedecks it with glowing candles and rose petals on one occasion), but the jarring discovery of Kena and Ziki in the van by homophobic townsfolk reminds the couple that their security is an illusion. In the absence of tangible and empathetic connections with our fellow human beings, many of us will migrate indefinitely in a futile search for the reality of our existence.
In a spectacular display of irony, the Kenyan Film Classification Board banned “Rafiki” from showing in the country with the exception of a one-week period of time that granted the film eligibility for the Academy Awards. “Rafiki” predicts the controversy of its own existence, but it nonetheless stands out as a laudable addition to the growing body of queer African cinema. As the curtain closes on the Global LGBTQ+ Film Festival at Notre Dame’s Browning Cinema, we are reminded that the key to freeing our identities lies in a collective effort to tear down the walls of judgement and bias that confine our true selves to an alternate reality.