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October 12, 2019

Rafiki (2018)
Director: Wanuri Kahiu
Actors: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Jimmy Gathu

Image result for rafiki film

Synopsis: Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are daughters of rival politicians in modern day Nairobi. They gradually become drawn to one another, but when they start an affair, the ire of a prejudiced community threatens to upset their brief attempt at happiness.

Review: Its atypical canvas helps a little, but the generic, indie feel of this Kenyan film – which has been filtered through the lens of one of the fastest emerging subgenre of films, the lesbian coming of age drama – is what resonates most. There are the intimate performances, the naturally lit scenes with sunlight streaking across the frame, and there’s even a colour motif – in Blue is the Warmest Colour, Léa Seydoux’s character famously had the dyed blue hair, and here it is Sheila Munyiva’s Ziki with her pink dreadlocks.

Betraying the somewhat calibrated air of the film is the fact it relies too often on soapy contrivances. This didacticism, though noble in intention, finds, among other things, the lovers as daughters of rival politicians vying for public office. This is probably meant to heighten how the couple are blighted by the potentially scandalous ramifications of their lesbian relationship: their dogmatic community will not approve, and they feel pressure not to jeopardise the careers of their reputation-obsessed fathers. Also, the lurch into third act conflict and tragic downfall feels sudden and forced, as Kena and Ziki’s courtship felt like it had been played out in public (if not the actual kissing) under the watchful guise of characters, who then suddenly turn on a sixpence and become monstrous bigots when the story needs it to.

All that said, the very existence of this film, and its message, is unquestionably admirable. If slightly gauche in dramatic and technical execution, the game spirit of the production really transmits. Also, there is some nuance; namely in the portrayal of Kena’s parents. Initially, audience sympathy is with Kena’s mother who has been abandoned by Kena’s father to largely bring Kena up alone, while the father has remarried, is about to have a prized son (important to a patriarchal society) and seems more concerned with his local business and political concerns. But after Kena’s relationship with Ziki is brutally outed by the local community, Kena’s mother leads the bigoted response, forcing Kena to have an ‘exorcism’ of her homosexual urgings, while the father offers Kena genuine sympathy and a shoulder to cry on, even though his political ambitions are in tatters. (October 2019)

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