Rafiki, Kenya's first entry in the Official Selection, makes a bold statement. The director, Wanuri Kahiu, the emobdiment of the new generation of African cinema, takes on the taboo subject of homosexuality. In Rafiki, she tells the story of two high-school girls who fall in love in the midst of an election campaign, which their fathers are fighting on opposing sides.
What inspired you to begin work on this film?
I have always wanted to tell a modern, African love story. Growing up, we rarely saw films about young Africans in love. We watched many Europeans and Americans fall in love on our screens over and over: but never us. I was in my late teens when I saw a young African couple kiss on screen, and I still remember the thrill, surprise, wonder and how the film disrupted my idea of romance. Before then, that kind of affection was reserved for foreigners.
Please describe your working methods and the atmosphere on set.
Same-sex relations are criminalized in Kenya, with a jail sentence of up to 14 years. Over the past five years of developing this film, we have seen worrying developments in the anti-LGBTI climate in East Africa, with local films and international TV shows banned because of LGBTI content. We knew that making the film meant challenging deep-rooted cynicism and asked the cast to think carefully about their decision to be in the film and to talk to their families and support systems before agreeing to the role. Most agreed; one refused.
We knew that making this film would require creating a space of incredible trust, honesty and a non-judgemental attitude. Making Rafiki initiated conversations about love, choice and freedom with the cast, crew and our families. It taught us all to talk about freedom: not only freedom to love, but also the freedom to create stories about taboo subjects.
Please share a few words about your actors.
The lead actor Samantha Mugatsia had never been in a film before, while Sheila Munyiva had been a featured actor in a previous film. I found Samantha at a friend’s party; she had the look and some of the characteristics of Kena, the main character. After the party, I got her number and asked her to audition.
What did you learn during the course of making this film?
Making the film was incredibly rewarding. My biggest lesson was learning to trust my instinct and surround myself with people who supported the vision of the film and were unafraid of the subject. Unlike with other films, there was great emotional support during this journey that reminded us why it was important to make this love story.
What are your views on the state of the film industry in Kenya?
Our industry is young but growing. This year we have two, possibly three international film releases, which is a huge coup for our small creative economy. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and adherence to the law, Rafiki has been banned in Kenya.
A film industry cannot thrive in a space that does not allow its creators freedom of expression or freedom of creativity; nor can it thrive in a space that does not allow its adult audiences the right to watch films. We hope that this policy changes in the future.