What Wanuri Kahiu’s Kenyan love story means for the LGBT community in Africa

Cannes Film Festival is among the world’s most important film events, and this year’s edition features six female filmmakers from a lineup of 13 Films, among them Rafiki (also known as “Friend”) by accomplished Kenyan filmmaker, producer and author Wanuri Kahiu.  Hers is the first Kenyan feature film to screen at the festival, in its 71st edition.

The film, produced by Steven Markovitz’s Big World Cinema, is a love story between two female leads—Kena And Ziki—who live in a housing estate in Nairobi, and whose fathers are rivaling politicians. They become unlikely friends and fall in love. When the community finds out, the girls are forced to choose between love and safety.

Kahui took to Twitter  to express joy at the selection.  “I’m so excited!!!! We did it!!! My new film Rafiki is invited to premiere at Cannes Film Festival,” she wrote. “First Kenyan Feature Film to be invited to the festival. Please join me in congratulating the Kenyan cast and crew! What an amazing feat! #Akenyanfirst #Rafikimovie #Cannes2018”

A still from Rafiki

Kahui’s excitement is well placed as the film is indeed a feat for its portrayal of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) story, considering how limited LGBT human rights are in Africa in comparison to other areas of the world. Of the 55 states recognised by the United Nations or African Union or both, the International Gay and Lesbian Association stated in 2015 that homosexuality is outlawed in 34 African countries.

The primary reason behind the vitriol at and lack of serious attention to the problems faced by LGBT Africans are judgments based on religions. Sometimes, the state of the natural order in the animal kingdoms is used to justify the poor treatment of LGBT on the continent. A good number of Africans and African leaders claim homosexuality was brought into the continent from other parts of the world, despite research demonstrating that this has long been a part of various African cultures.

Many traditional societies in Africa developed ways of ordering and living with same-sex attractions and behaviour. Many tolerated some same-sex relationships among men, while many different African societies, including cultures in Kenya, Sudan, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Lesotho record marriages or other kinds of recognised relationships between women, as well as different forms of cross-dressing and role-swapping.

The ideology, similar to how acts of violence and discrimination are carried against women with a ‘worthy’ reason, is used to rape lesbians, to jail, threaten or kill gay rights activists, to dehumanise LGBT people across Africa, and legitimise hate such as the suppression of human rights of LGBT people in Zimbabwe, the signing of restrictive laws in Nigeria; the anti-gay bill in Uganda, and statements which go as far as calling gay people’s throats to be slit in Gambia.

Addressing the rights of LGBT in Africa, former American president Barack Obama, while meeting the Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta in 2015, said, “When you start treating people differently not because of any harm they are doing to anybody, but because they are different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode.”

Rafiki

The Cannes Festival screening of a film that responds to the anti-LGBT climate in an African country and challenges these calcified ways of thinking at the Cannes Festival implies more of these stories, which have existed for a long time in different African nations, while previously enshrouded in silence and secrecy, will continue to be told. And beliefs that are dangerous to other humans will be continuously challenged.

Rafiki, however, isn’t the first LGBT movie to be set and produced in Africa. Films like Inxeba/The Wound, a South African story that chronicles the closeted relationship between two men in the context of the Xhosa initiation ritual of Ulwaluko, sparked a lot of conversation and controversy with the producers and stars enduring death threats and the movie getting banned for a period of time.

The film had been accused of cultural insensitivity because it portrayed secretive initiation rituals. However, movies like Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which covered the same topic, did not receive similar criticism. This has led to accusations that complaints about the film were instead motivated by homophobia.

Despite all, Inxeba received 19 awards at 44 festivals worldwide, eight South African Film and Television Awards (Safta) nominations, and was short-listed for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Rafiki, produced in collaboration with Kenya’s Awali entertainment, is said to be inspired by the 2007 Caine Prize Winner, Monica Arac De Nyeko’s Jambula Tree, a similar story of two girls in love in Uganda.

For LGBT filmmakers, especially, the film festival circuit has become a sanctuary of sorts as it provides a safe space for creators of LGBT film and art to promote their art and gain grants and much needed critical acclaim before they push it out into the much wider world. As such, filmmakers are beginning to push the boundaries on the continent in terms of story telling and cinematography.

Wanuri Kahiu speaking at TEDxNairobi. Courtesy: TED

While sharing challenges faced by producers of The Nest’s 2014 LGBTI Kenyan fiction film, Stories of Our Lives, Kahui noted the harassment cast and crew endured after the film was banned—even besides much international success—and the arrest of their local producer.

“While these examples illustrate the challenges of producing a film about a lesbian love story in Africa,” she said, “it also highlights how urgent and necessary a story of this kind is. “Rafiki” is 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 and make ourselves ready for the work for which all other work is but preparation.” 

Wanuri Kahiu is part of a new generation of African storytellers interested in telling African stories in a more adventurous way, which she calls “Afrobubblegum“. Her stories and films have received international acclaim and have been screened in numerous film festivals around the world.

Her success in the film industry continues to inspire film makers, especially young women, to tell a perspective of their own stories—one that celebrates diversity, promotes equality and acceptance, and recognises the contribution of everyone, whatever their sexuality.

The Cannes Film Festival is expected to run from May 8 – May 19.