From May 8-19, the Cannes Film Festival will preview films from talented creators across the globe. Authors Jill Forbes and Sara Street argue in their book, European Cinema: An Introduction, that Cannes has served as a platform to showcase European films, and to highlight European contributions to film as an artform.
Today, Cannes is hardly limited to highlighting “European art cinema.” It now serves as a meeting place for filmmakers from all over the planet to present their stories to the world. The Cannes Film Festival has become a hub where filmmakers, producers, actors, and celebrities are able to network and gain exposure.
That is why it bears more than a casual mention that work from the east African country of Kenya is set to debut at this year’s festival. Kenyan director, Wanuri Kahiu’s film, Rafiki (Friend), tells the story of two girls, Kena and Ziki, whose fathers happen to be political opponents in an upcoming election.
When the girls become aware of each other, what follows is the flicker of attraction, and then affection. What happens in between and after is the story. Regardless of how queer the love is, the love is the story.
Watch the trailer HERE
Across the African continent, countries have been slow to embrace their queer compatriots, and some have been outright hostile to them.
After a visit from prominent evangelical Christians back in 2009, the Ugandan parliament began work on the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Act, which it passed in December 2013. In earlier versions, the Act was known as the “kill the gays bill” because it imposed life imprisonment and the death penalty for “aggravated” homosexual acts.
Being an out and proud, perhaps even curious and experimenting, queer African is an act of resistance.
African stories that make it to mainstream audiences often tell stories like these – steeped in trauma and tragedy. But Wanuri Kahiu isn’t that kind of storyteller. Despite fervent efforts from the Kenyan government to suppress exposure to queer people’s lives (which seems to be conflated with “endorsements” and “promotions” of homosexuality), Kahiu’s production company, AFROBUBBLEGUM, is committed to creating “a fun, fierce and frivolous representation of Africa… [and] work that celebrates joy,” and that includes LGBTQ folks.
We’ve seen love stories dozens of times, but Kahiu’s Rafiki is unique because it’s about a budding lesbian love set in Kenya’s vibrant capital city, Nairobi.
Just one week before it was set to make its debut at Cannes, Rafiki was banned by the Kenyan government citing it makes people “too hopeful.” In a New York Times article, the Kenyan Film Classification Board says, the movie “legitimizes homosexuality against the dominant values, cultures and beliefs of the people of Kenya.”
It is important to note that Rafiki is an adaptation of “Jambula Tree,” the award-winning short story by Ugandan writer, Monica Arac de Nyeko. “Jambula Tree” is essentially a love letter that may never be sent or seen. It bursts at the seams with the teased, unfulfilled desire of a love that cannot thrive because of its cultural taboo.
Once, on holiday, forbidden lovers Anyango and Sanyu, give in to each other after years of knowing without saying, and wanting without satisfying. Scratching that persistent itch renders the ladies unbothered by the prying eyes of the nosy neighbor, Mama Atim. Mama Atim shines a torch on them, bringing all their business into the light. On reflection – on the knowledge that Sanyu would be flown hundreds of miles away to London – on the whispers, rumors, the community’s projected shame, Anyango decides “I was not sorry.”
Representations of African people created by African people are expanding the scope of African life that we get to witness. Being an out and proud, perhaps even curious and experimenting, queer African is an act of resistance.
Representations of LGBTQ life in the African Diaspora are important because they push back against the view that queerness is un-African. Thus, Rafiki follows a trend of courageous artistry emerging from the African continent.
While Kenya has banned the film, Kenyans will see it, and maybe – hopefully – they will wrestle with the notion of whether it is homosexuality, or homophobia, exclusion, and discrimination that should be considered un-African traits. As those conversations appear more frequently, I don’t doubt that creators like Kahiu will also decide, “I was not sorry” when they risk scorn so that real life Kenas and Zikis can see their stories told.
Cover Photo: Okay Africa