Cannes Film Fest 2018: Rafiki, Lesbian Romance from Kenyan Director Wanuri Kahiu

Kenyan writer-director Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki, a candy-colored lesbian romance between two teenager, is rather conventional from a narrative point of view (“Two Incredible Girls in Love,” a similarly-themed movie was made in the U.S. over two decades ago).

But it’s the particular context—working class Nairobi, Africa—that makes the movie more than just an honorable panel to the growing literature of LGBTQ stories.

(There is a more interesting gay film in the main competition in Cannes this year, “Sorry Angel,” from Christoph Honore about AIDS and its lethal toll in Paris of 1993).

As noted, Kahiu’s feature is not “deviant,” “subversive,” or “countercultural,” and yet, it is shamefully banned from theatrical showing in her own country, where openly gay life is not just a societal taboo but actually a legal crime.

It’s hard tell whether the film is not very deep in its probe or not inventive enough due to its small budget, limited experience (it’s the director’s second effort), or constricting broader socio-political circumstances.

World premiering in the secondary series, Un Certain Regard, of the 2018 Cannes Film Fest, “Rafiki” is a strong candidate for all the LGBTQ festivals in the world, especially in the US (where most events take place in June or July, the months of Gay Pride).

The source material is a short story by the Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko, which Kahiu and her South African co-writer Jenna Bass have adapted to the big screen.

Set in a poor area of Nairobi (I’m hesitant to call it a ghetto), described pejoratively as “the Slopes,” the tale centers on Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), a bright and vibrant young girl (more of a tomboy as types go), who is socially isolated from other members of her gender.

Kena spends her time playing traditionally boys game—soccer—socializing with a male (Neville Masati) whose band refers to her “one of the guys,” a label she doesn’t seem to object to.

Naturally, though, this label worries her schoolteacher-mother Mercy (Nini Wacera), who is divorced from her more liberal-minded father John (Jimmy Gathu), a shopkeeper with political ambitions

Soon Kena begins hanging out with Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a richer, more educated girl, who “happens” to be the daughter of John’s conservative rival. (This is one of the more contrived points of the plot, perhaps aiming to make the friendship more complex).

From the first encounter, it’s clear that the two girls are attracted to each other, both emotionally and physically; they even dare to kiss, though fully clothed, perhaps out of fear but also out of naivete in matters of sex.

As expected, the social surroundings and institutions—including the church–are intolerant of such bonds, and soon they are subject to vocal arguments at home, malicious gossip, all made even worse due to their being positioned on the opposites poles of the ideological-political spectrum.

Most of the dialogue is explicit, and in moments even flat.  The two girls are made to express their mutual feelings verbally rather than emotionally or physically.  There are monologues that are borderline agit-prop, even when they espouse liberal ideas, coming from the more accepting father.  The father figure and his opinions are rather refreshing, as in most American and Western tales, it is the mother who is more tolerant of her daughter’s sexual orientation.

The director also fails to show more meaningful connections between the intimate and personal tensions and the broader social-political contexts.

But as noted, the very facts that “Rafiki” was actually made and that it is publicly shown in a major festival like Cannes, are—for now (or as the French say, pour le moment) sufficient reasons for a modest celebration.

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