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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Rafiki ****

Starring: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Nice Githinji

Director: Wanuri Kahui

Country: Kenya

Rafiki caused quite a stir upon its release. Technically illegal in its native Kenya – where homosexuality is a crime punishable by 14 years in prison and the release of LGBT cinema forbidden – it found its way to the Cannes last year and gained universal acclaim from its international audience. It was initially announced that anyone in possession of a copy of the film would be arrested in Kenya, but the film went on to win Best Actress at the FESPACO Film Festival (Africa’s biggest and most prestigious film festival) in Ouagadougou and when its director, Wanuri Kahui, sued the Kenyan government to allow theatrical release of the film to give it eligibility for submission to the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category, they eventually relented and allowed it to be screened for seven days to sold-out audiences. Now, it has found release in the UK too.

Kena (Mugatsia) runs a small convenience store with her father in Nairobi. When he campaigns for a local election she meets the daughter of her father’s political rival, Ziki (Munyiva), a free-spirited and colourfully exuberant girl with whom she has an instant connection. Their quick and intense friendship raises eyebrows within the community, especially as Kena rebukes her male suitors for no apparent reason. As they fall in love, the girls’ families begin to figure out the nature of their relationship and their reaction is one of censure and reproach.

Compelling though their story is, this is a daring piece of cinema that manages not to sensationalise what is clearly a burning issue (the Kenyan High Court voted only a few weeks ago to uphold its ban on homosexuality) and keeps it small-scale, human and nuanced. We spend enough time with the couple to be invested in their chemistry – which is palpable – but the presence of the neighbourhood gossips, male suitors and their politicised families provides enough threat to underpin their bittersweet romance with a tense foreboding. Of course we’ve seen stories like these before – the torch-wielding villagers are never far away from the monstrous freaks they refuse to understand – but there’s something refreshingly honest about Rafiki that makes up for its formula.

While the pair live in a fairly average suburb of Nairobi, the film is drenched in a luscious palate, with colour used with aplomb to detail their world with vibrant energy. Interiors are bursting with colour; exteriors are painted with dazzling block shades; costumes are bold prints, saturated with audacious contrasting hues. Even fluorescents (the most notoriously difficult colours to use well) pop from the screen with glorious effervescence, populating their world with a vivid technicolour that is delicious to watch.

Mugatsia and Munyiva deliver strong performances, with the former particularly breathing life into their relationship. We invest in the dizzy fizzing of the early days of their romance, but above all, we invest in their situation, which puts a human face on our knowledge of countries where homosexuality is still illegal. In an early scene we see one of the men launch into a viciously homophobic tirade about a man he suspects is gay, illustrating clearly Kena and Ziki’s dilemma: they can hide their love and be unhappy or explore it and be ruined. This is an impasse too heavy for any couple to bear and so they try to masquerade as friends – the title itself, when translated into English, means simply “friend”.

The film is fairly conventional in both narrative and structure, but by framing their romance within this normalcy there is definitely some sense in its depiction of same-sex love as ordinary, considering its home audience. For international viewers the story is touching and well-made, but don’t expect it to reinvent the wheel.

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