By Joseph Longo
Rafiki, based on the Ugandan short story “Jambula Tree” by Monica Arac de Nyeko, follows a Kenyan Romeo and Juliet romance between the daughters of rival politicians. Kena (Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) explore first-time love in a country where being gay is illegal. Doused with saturated colors and tender performances, Rafiki is a rarity in queer cinema with a bright and hopeful tone.
Cate Blanchett found Rafiki “incredibly powerful and moving,” while Benicio Del Toro went out of his way to chat with star Samantha Mugatsia. Dr. Ezekiel Mutua of the Kenya Film Classification Board, on the other hand, said the film works “to corrupt our culture and moral values, and to kill the institution of family.”
It wasn’t that Rafiki depicted a lesbian romance—intimate kissing was in the script he’d approved. Rather, it was that the film depicted a positive love story. As chair of the Kenya Film Classification board, he banned the film last April for “clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.” Homosexuality is punishable up to 14 years in prison in the African country. (Advocates are currently in court hoping to strike down the pre-colonial law).
Before banning the film, Mutua offered director Wanuri Kahiu an out: change the film’s ending. “I remember it very clearly,” she recalls. Kahiu alleges they told her the ending “is not remorseful enough, and it makes it seem as if LGBT people can be accepted in Kenya.” Mutua and the Kenya Film Classification board did not return The Daily Beast’s multiple requests for comment.
Kahiu chose not to alter her ending, refuting their claim that she changed the script they had approved months earlier. Knowing Rafiki would prove controversial, she worked with a lawyer throughout production in case the classification board squashed the film.
Mutua did just that on April 17, 2018, issuing an official nationwide ban on Rafiki. “We wish to emphasize the fact that films made in Kenya for public consumption MUST reflect and respect the dominant values of the Kenyan society,” he said in a statement. Notably, the ban does not extend to foreign films. The 2019 Indian lesbian rom-com Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is currently playing in theaters across Kenya.
“It’s not about the representation of LGBT issues from around the world,” Kahiu says of the ban. “The concern is us seeing ourselves in a particular way.”
While the classification board balked, a major foreign film festival readily took Rafiki under its wing. In May 2018, Rafiki became the first Kenyan film to play at the Cannes Film Festival. Main competition jury members Cate Blanchett, Ava DuVernay, Lea Seydoux and Khadja Nin skipped out on official duties to see the film, which was nominated in a lesser category. Nin, a Burundian musician, encouraged film journalists to “follow up on the situation once [the stars] return home.”
Indeed once home from Cannes, Kahiu filed a constitutional petition to remove the ban to meet the seven-day screening requirement for Oscar consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category. High court judge Wilfrida Okwany consented. Kahiu just barely scraped by—Rafiki’s last day of screening to a sold-out audience in Nairobi was the final day for Oscar eligibility.
Trevor Noah joked about the ruling on The Daily Show. “I think it’s amazing that homophobia bows down to the Academy Awards.” However, Rafiki was not chosen as Kenya’s Oscar entry. Supa Modo, about a terminally ill young girl dreaming of being a superhero, was selected but did not receive a nomination. Mutua blamed Rafiki’s failed nomination on Kahiu’s refusal to change the ending. “I can bet it would have qualified for nomination to the Oscars and would have won an award. See now!” he tweeted.
The controversy proved helpful for distribution. Rafiki dominated the 2018-2019 film festival circuit, with high-profile screenings at the Toronto and Palm Springs fests. That’s Kahiu’s silver-lining. “You dream about your film getting international releases,” she said. “It’s amazing to go around the world with it and see how different people are responding to the film.”
Over a year after its world premiere at Cannes, Rafiki finally premiered in select North American theaters Friday. “We saw this as a real talent. We felt the film was important not just because it was a good film but also because of where the film’s coming from and what it’s trying to accomplish in its home country,” said Michael Rosenberg, president of Film Movement, the distributor of the film in North America.
Kahiu is grateful Rafiki’s notoriety is shining an international light on Kenya’s anti-LGBT laws. But she didn’t create the film for American liberals. “The people who need to see themselves hopeful and joyful are not able to see the film,” she said, noting LGBT Kenyans face high risks of assault.
Rafiki is in many ways a success story for African filmmaking after achieving international acclaim and distribution. Kahiu, and occasionally her two leads, have appeared in glossy photo shoots for Vanity Fair and Vogue. The Guardian reported that Kahiu became the first African woman to receive a studio deal when Universal and Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine tapped her to direct the adaption of The Thing About Jellyfish starring Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown. She’s also working on a Los Angeles-set musical romance for Universal, as well as with Viola Davis’ production company on Wild Sees, an Amazon sci-fi show.
But Kahiu isn’t able to revel in her rising star. Per Kenya’s ban, she purged her computer and home of all Rafiki production and promotion materials. “I don’t have a copy of my own film,” she says, with a resigned laugh. “More than anything, I would love to be able to collect the posters from around the world just as a token of this time.”
Then there are the legal battles still waging around the film. Kahiu is suing the Kenyan government for infringing her constitutional right to freedom of expression. The Guardian also reports she’ll appear in court in June. If she wins, the historic ruling would lift the ban on most previously banned films, including Rafiki and fellow LGBT narrative Stories of Our Lives.
“We wouldn’t feel so firm about it if our constitution didn’t allow us the right to freedom of expression in the very way that it is written,” Kahiu says of all Kenyan films. “Everybody has the right to watch them. They have the right to choose to watch them.”