Director: Wanuri Kahiu
Stars: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Nice Ginthinji
Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu’s second feature film is, in many ways, a very traditional romance picture. So traditional that, for a majority of its running time, it bares close comparison to Romeo and Juliet. Two young lovers are irresistibly drawn to one another with that blessed natural kineticism so often sought after. Our intrepid heroes belong to warring houses; in this case both father figures are competing for the same local government position; one of them representative of The Progressive Party, no less.
What makes Rafiki (Swahili for ‘friend’) pop, however, is its same sex couple and the greater context of Kenyan sexual politics. Kenya has come on leaps and bounds over the past few decades, and Slopes – the city in which Rafiki takes place – has a skyline just as impressive as many of its western counterparts. By and large, however, the nation is still deeply rooted in faith; the overall vibe seems similar to that of America’s bible belt, if that makes for a more digestible reference point. As such, gay relationships are still frowned upon and likely to cause rupture to the status quo of any micro-community.
So it goes with the burgeoning romance between Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). Kena plays football with the boys, keeps her hair short, and falls more-or-less into the tomboy stereotype that western audiences will recognise. She becomes ensorcelled by Ziki, whose long pastel shaded braids and dance troupe friends are more deeply rooted in the vibrancy of Africa.
It is to the great credit of both actors and Kahiu’s eye that their connection fizzes from the get-go, and one of the most impressive elements of Rafiki is how well it works with minimal dialogue. So many of the scenes shared by Mugatsia and Munyiva rely solely on body language and their expressive eyes; averting, avoiding or (best of all) connecting. The negative space between them shimmers with potentiality. A movie romance lives or dies on the chemistry between its leads. These two positively crackle and its a joy to be in their presence.
The film belongs to the Afrobubblegum movement; a cross-platform project of which Kahiu is a well-publicised contributor. The mission statement therein is to bring colour, vibrancy and inclusivity to African art; a world of creativity and experience that seldom manages to make its voice heard here in the UK (and more’s the pity). Rafiki certainly adheres to the goals of Afrobubblegum. The colours of the city remind us where Spike Lee got his inspiration from for the likes of Do The Right Thing and Crooklyn, while the splashes of ultraviolet neon at a nightclub are as deliciously vivid as Ziki’s braids.
Rafiki – a call for genuine progressive response in Kenya – has already been met with hostility; and has been banned there for its depiction of homosexuality in a positive light. With this in mind Kahiu’s film is already a tried and tested firebrand, but take it out of its societal and political context, and this significance diminishes. With a too-familiar story and a svelte 82 minute running time that still feels a bit baggy, Rafiki feels less significant when set beside its contemporaries from more open-minded nations.
Which is not to undermine the power of what Kahiu is attempting (and succeeding) to achieve here. She is an important voice for Kenyan cultural advancement, and if the popular appeal of Afrobubblegum increases, the arrival of more varied African cinema on our shores will be most welcome indeed.