'Rafiki': The First Kenyan Film To Premiere At Cannes, Banned At Home
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
We're going to talk about a new movie out this week called "Rafiki." It's a love story between two teenage girls. And it's based in Kenya, where gay sex is against the law. It's the first Kenyan film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. But back at home, it's been banned because of its subject matter.
WANURI KAHIU: The head of the classification board said, if I banned this film, I'll make you very popular. And definitely people turned up to us to see why this film was being banned. And I have to say, there was quite a lot of people who were disappointed that it was quite innocent, that it was quite light.
PFEIFFER: That's the film's director, Wanuri Kahiu. I spoke with her. And we began by talking about whether she was trying to be political with this film.
KAHIU: I'm never trying to make a political statement. I'm always trying to make an artistic statement. But because I am born of a certain gender and of a certain race, everything that I do becomes deemed political. And I think that it's even more unfortunate that sometimes that when two people are in love, the moment that you change the gender and the race of the people in love, it becomes increasingly political.
So a love story becomes less of a love story if it's black or if it's queer and then more levels of politicization are assigned to it. I was just trying to make a love story. And that's all I was trying to do. I wasn't trying to make a political statement.
PFEIFFER: Even if you didn't mean to, it certainly has become that for some people. Does it surprise you? Or did that feel inevitable?
KAHIU: I think it feels inevitable. But though it surprised me, I really still resist it. I think the film became political after the film was banned. And when we went to court to fight for freedom of expression, then it became a political act. But the film in and of itself I feel is just a love story.
PFEIFFER: One thing that really struck me about this movie is that so many films about Africa show us war and poverty and AIDS and disease. This is a movie bursting with bold colors and vibrant music, really beautiful street scenes of laundry drying and food being served. It's bright and cheerful, dynamic. I wondered if that was a deliberate way to portray Africa differently than it's often portrayed?
KAHIU: Absolutely. I am a firm believer in what we've started to term as AFROBUBBLEGUM, which is not only a movement, it's become a genre. And it means fun, fierce and frivolous African art. So anything that has joy and hope at the center of it coming from Africa I consider AFROBUBBLEGUM. And it was incredibly important that I tell stories of joy, stories of love, stories of resilience and absolute radiance.
I like the term radical hope. And those kind of stories are incredibly important to tell not only because we need to see images of ourselves so that we know we are worthy of hopeful existences, but so that other people can start to see us as that. And if Africa is actually the cradle of humanity, then we need to be able to be sensitive about Africa and the depiction of Africans because it speaks to so much of where our lineage came from not only as people of color and people in the diaspora, but in a genetics sort of a way, you know?
We want to think that we are born of love and joy. And our existence as a whole has been joyful and loving and kind. And the only way to do that is if we see images of ourselves in joy and in love.
PFEIFFER: Kenya has a film classification board that was not happy with your movie because it depicts gay sex. They actually asked you to change the end of the film to have the main character look more remorseful that now ends more on a note of hope. You wouldn't do that, and that got the movie banned.
I've read that you said you think that the ban wasn't prompted so much by the lesbian scenes as by the happy ending. Do you think that if things had ended badly for the two women, maybe the censors wouldn't have objected so much?
KAHIU: Oh, they were very clear on it. It's not that they would have objected, they were very, very clear on it. I had a meeting with the Kenya Film Classification Board. And during the meeting, not once did anybody say that the love scenes should be changed or the kiss should be changed or anything of that nature. The only thing they said is that the ending was not remorseful enough.
And they didn't feel that if the film was happy and joyous, that that was a message that they wanted to support. But if I could change the ending of the film and make it more remorseful, then perhaps they would give me a rating. And they were quite clear on that.
PFEIFFER: And what does that tell you about their thought process and what they think about this larger issue?
KAHIU: I think that for me, it's quite complicated because if you think of our country's motto - and we have a beautiful Kenyan motto, which is peace, love, and unity - I think that if they wanted me to change the ending, it wouldn't be reminiscent of the spirit of the motto.
And I truly feel that the film, the way it is really speaks to our achievements and our growth as people. And the ideals of peace, love and unity should be something that we truly work towards in our art, in our - in the way we think and act. But asking for work to be remorseful I think goes against the very spirit of the nation.
PFEIFFER: There is a a violent scene, though - not gory - but given how lovely and light much of the rest of the movie is, it's hard to watch because when the women do get outed as a couple, basically a mob descends on them. And that was hard to watch, I think.
KAHIU: Yeah, it was. But we have to remember that 1 in 5 LGBT people in Kenya are violently attacked because of how they identify. And it's something that we have to be cognizant of. And it's something that we have to pay attention to. So while I would have loved the film to exist without it, I thought that it was important to also tell the story of the harm that is caused as a result of the way you choose to love.
PFEIFFER: There's a point in the movie where this - these two young women are talking about what future there could be for them.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RAFIKI")
SHEILA MUNYIVA: (As Ziki Okemi) Kena, stop being naive. What did you expect was going to happen either way? Are you planning to marry me? Are we going to have this beautiful family?
SAMANTHA MUGATSIA: (As Kena Mwaura) Yes.
PFEIFFER: Kenya's High Court is considering overturning the ban on gay sex. I think that's going to happen later this year.
KAHIU: Yeah, in May.
PFEIFFER: In the meantime, though, people who are public about being gay in Kenya are at risk of being harmed or arrested. I'm wondering what hope you think there is for people in same-sex relationships in Kenya? What actually are the long-term possibilities right now?
KAHIU: Well, the fact that there is a case in court that is decriminalizing homosexuality means that the law for the first time has to recognize that LGBTQ+ people exist. They are mentioned and identified as Kenyans. That's a huge leap forward. There's many people who came out as a result of "Rafiki." People came to watch the movie. They went home - came with their parents to watch the movie. And came out to their parents. That was huge.
There's a beautiful tweet I read a couple of weeks ago. The tweet asked what was the happiest moment of your life? And somebody answered watching "Rafiki" and coming out to my mother. So it is hopeful. Things are changing. Conversations are starting within families. They've definitely started within my own family. So that in itself is hope.
PFEIFFER: Wanuri Kahiu is director of "Rafiki," a movie about a love story between two teenage girls. Thanks for talking with us.
KAHIU: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN MORBY'S "CITY MUSIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.