Portrait of a Lady on Fire set the film world alight last year. It didn’t succeed quite in the culture-shock storm-the-box-office fashion of other non-English language features like Parasite, probably because Portrait‘s power wasn’t unlike that of a secret: it never relied on making a big splash (narratively or even externally) to make the intimate feel universal. Everything about that film seems secretive, not least of which, obviously, is the forbidden romance between its two leading women. Consigned to privacy in isolation together for a limited amount of time, the fragility of their secret lends a sense of doom to the film’s loveliest moments. Part of the brilliance of Portrait was this: these lovers are on a literal island away from the norms of society, and yet are still forced apart in the end by those very same norms.
The lovers of Rafiki have no such refuge, apart from the private moments they make for themselves amidst the Nairobi bustle. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), in fact, lead individual lives that are likely more public than most. Kena is the daughter of a prominent politician seeking election in the coming days. She spends much of her time in the same haunt preferred by the vicious town gossip, who hardly even seems to recognize privacy as a concept. Ziki, meanwhile, is also the daughter of a politician — the one running against Kena’s father, of course — and spends much of her time dancing with her friends around town. Her floor-length multicolored braids are not those of someone who appears to shy away from the spotlight.
It’s an eventually callous comparison, maybe, to bring up Portrait of a Lady on Fire, because the similarities do sort of end once we step away from the focus on female lovers and the interconnected theme of secrecy. In a narrative sense, Portrait has more to offer for the cinephile: complex themes arise and we’re permitted to engage with them through dialogue, and again through visual symbolism, and again still through the very way Portrait is filmed. If that film’s precision calls to mind a methodically constructed timepiece, Rafiki is by comparison sort of a loudspeaker that gleefully trumpets the time.
Which is not a knock against it. Externally — i.e. in the Real World, that one in which we humans create our Film Worlds — Rafiki absolutely needs to be that blunt. The Real World story of Wanuri Kahiu’s fourth feature is almost as interesting as Kena and Ziki’s love story. On April 19, 2018, it was announced that Rafiki would make history as the first Kenyan film to ever screen at Cannes, in the Un Certain Regard section. Praise for Kahiu’s accomplishment poured in instantaneously, including effusive accolades from Ezekiel Mutua, chief executive of the Kenya Film Classification Board. But just days later, on April 27th, Mutua and the KFCB sang a different tune: Rafiki was to be banned outright in Kenya “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans.”
To say nothing of the complicated wrinkles regarding Rafiki‘s international producers in the Netherlands then being accused by the KFCB of forcing non-Kenyan values on Kenyans from overseas, the ban was in one sense inevitable. LGBT rights in Kenya are nonexistent, with homosexuality criminalized and gay sex punishable by 14 years in prison. With that law comes the inevitable and many-headed ways in which LGBT individuals are discriminated against, from the inability to legally adopt to the disturbing fact that there are no explicit legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Despite an increasing number of LGBT rights groups finding purchase in-country within the past several years, conservative Kenyan society, by and large, still considers homosexuality taboo.
On the other hand, the Kenyan population in 2020 has the same access to the same Netflix and Hulu and HBO shows that everyone else does, and “homosexual content” in the international VOD market isn’t vetted nearly the same viciousness — despite international releases still being subject to the KFCB’s approval. Kahiu herself called attention to the very same contradiction in her response to KFCB’s ruling. Couched in this issue of accessibility is that of choice, and the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Kenyans were denied the chance to judge Rafiki on their own.
Where the Real World and the Film World meet is a fascinating flashpoint for Rafiki, partly because the film itself is in fact very apolitical. Kahiu explicitly set out to craft a “normal” love story, and she succeeded. Insert any two individuals in place of Kena and Ziki and you’re still left with a passionate and tragic tale. But of course only Film World is ever so simple. As Kahiu notes, “the moment that you change the gender and the race of the people in love, it becomes increasingly political”. Unlike Portrait, Rafiki derives power not from narrative complexity but from the willingness to simply tell this particular story. Kena and Ziki are Kenyan women, and they do live in Nairobi, and so Rafiki shoulders a political complexity that’s not necessarily presented as a Big Idea within the film itself.
Eventually Rafiki did win a one-week showing in Nairobi, which played to sold-out crowds. Kahiu, for her part, addressed the ban and the film’s impact with more class than anyone should have expected of someone who’s had to watch their art be censored. She created Afrobubblegum, a collective that promotes Afrofuturistic art that’s “fun, fierce and frivolous,” and this mentality — that not all art about Africa has to be “agenda art” that deals with serious subject matter — lends a truly refreshing authenticity to Rafiki.
Check out Rafiki streaming on the Criterion Channel, and also check out Kahiu’s 2017 TED Talk here: