Reviews in Retrospect: Rafiki

Wanuri Kahiu’s 2018 feature film Rafiki is an intimate portrayal of forbidden love. Banned in Kenya for its representation of a same-sex couple, the film received global critical acclaim for its unapologetic and lyrical depiction of queer love in a country that criminalises homosexuality. Based on the Ugandan short story “Jambula Tree” by Monica Arac de Nyeko, Rafiki follows the story of Kena and Zita, the daughters of rival politicians in Nairobi. The film is both nuanced and ambitious in its scale, set against a backdrop of local politics and insular gossip, and presenting the painful choice between happiness and safety.

Rafiki, translating as ‘friend’ in Swahili, was banned by the Kenya Film Classification board for its “clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.” Interestingly, much of the script was approved despite the depiction of a same-sex couple, but the board concluded that the overall portrayal of queer love was too hopeful. However, when the ban was momentarily lifted in the effort for an Oscar’s nomination, Rafiki gained a week’s run in Kenyan theatres – it sold out. The film was embraced by film festivals across the world, with an international premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and an Un Certain Regard Official Selection.

Director Wanuri Kahiu is a part of ‘Afrobubblegum’, a collective of African artists whose ambition is to create “fun, frivolous and fierce work”. Rafiki is a celebration of this aesthetic movement. Filled with the vibrant and colourful street-wear and music of Nairobi youth culture, the gorgeous cinematography and original soundtrack by African all-female musicians harmonises with Kahui’s artistry as a filmmaker. The film is joyful; with tender performances from leads Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, Rafiki is a celebration of queer cinema, and particularly Kenyan LGBTQ+ representation.

-Leoni Fretwell

Featured Image Source: still via TIFF / Youtube

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