By Kylie Kiunguyu
Kenya's feature-film debut at the Cannes Festival is an inspirational story of perseverance in the face of great oppression. Filmmaker and creator Wanuri Kahiu described her film Rafiki as "a story about all that is good and difficult about being in love so that for those fortunate moments we are lifted above our prejudices".
Rafiki is the story of friendship, love, loyalty and the aspirations of two young women, Kena and Ziki, whose families happen to be on opposing sides of the political divide. This disparity is the basis for the struggles they must endure as they attempt to support each other in the pursuit of their dreams. They face immense pressures and ultimately have to make a tough choice: happiness or safety?
The International Festival de Cannes released its catalogue of female filmmakers in line with its goal for gender parity, and in a line-up of 13 films, six female filmmakers are featured. Rafiki was the only Kenyan entry and marks the first time that a Kenyan feature film debuts at the festival.
According to the film's press kit, Rafiki was inspired by the short story that won the 2007 Caine Prize: 'Jambula Tree', by Monica Arac de Nyeko, a coming-of-age story about two girls in love, set in Uganda.
The filmmaker added that making a film about two women in love that was set in Kenya meant challenging deep-rooted cynicism about same-sex relationships, even among actors, crew, friends and family. She describes the worrying anti- LGBTQI+ developments in East Africa that happened during the five years that it took to develop the project, such as Uganda's proposed "Kill the Gays" Bill, which called for the death penalty for all Ugandans found guilty of "aggravated homosexuality".
Wanuri is not the first filmmaker to attempt telling alternative love stories. In 2014 The Nest, a multidisciplinary Kenyan collective that works on film, fashion, visual arts and music, produced an LGBTQI+ Kenyan fictional film titled Stories of Our Lives. Despite much international success, the film endured a banning, cast and crew harassment and the arrest of its local producer.
These instances demonstrate the magnitude of undertaking the production of a lesbian love story in Africa and just as vividly shows the need for it.
About the filmmaker
Wanuri Kahiu is a Kenyan film director, producer and author. She has received several awards and nominations for the films she directed, including the awards for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture at the Africa Movie Academy Awards in 2009 for her dramatic feature film From a Whisper. She is also the co-founder of AfroBubbleGum, a media collective dedicated to supporting African art.