London Film Festival 2018: First Look Review – Rafiki

I have a longstanding policy at the London Film Festival of trying to discover films from new places, so whenever the chance comes to see something from a country whose cinema is entirely new to me, I try to take it. I believe this is my first Kenyan film, but it’s also something of a first for Kenya; a film about a lesbian relationship from a country where LGBTQ relationships are still punishable by law. Initially, it was banned for promoting lesbianism, though that ban was recently briefly lifted – for a week, so the film could be submitted as Kenya’s entry for the Oscars.

Politics has dictated much about this film’s release, it also features in the story of Rafiki. Tomboy Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and carefree Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) both have fathers who are running in the local election, so it raises some eyebrows when they become friends. What people don’t initially know is that Kena and Ziki are becoming more than just friends.

Rafiki (which means Friend in Swahili) is a vibrant film. It’s full of colour, from the surroundings to Ziki’s multi-coloured dreadlocks, to the neon lit club scene with everyone in glow in the dark face paint. It’s full of noise, from the bustle of life to the varied palette of music. It’s also full of chemistry, especially between Kena and Ziki, engagingly played by Mugatsia and Munyiva, each making their debut here. Director and co-writer Wanuri Kahiu and her cast create a believable sense of community, both in the cohesiveness and closeness on display and the feeling of groupthink, exemplified by the church, as gossip spreads about Kena and Ziki.

The scenes that have generated the most controversy in Kenya are notable for the connection that we feel between Kena and Ziki, but also very chaste by almost any standard, though Kahiu’s tendency to go in close does heavily emphasise the palpable chemistry and the intimacy of these moments, and that’s likely more than enough to shock in a country that still punishes gay sex. That said, the chemistry is evident in far more than just the film’s love scenes; it’s in longing looks and perhaps most notably in the moment that Ziki reaches out for Kena during an anti gay sermon.

Viewed in the context of Kenya, Rafiki is brave and groundbreaking cinema. Outside that context, there’s not much new here. We’ve seen the basic beats of this narrative before, it could be set in America’s deep south or in the UK a few decades back and little would be different. Even when it could use specifics to make itself stand out, the film seems to pull back. The political battle between Kena and Ziki’s fathers stays largely in the background. You get the sense that Ziki’s dad is more hardline, but it never seems to have much effect in the larger story and unless you know Kenyan politics the line between them will likely seem as blurry to you as it did me.

Overall, Rafiki is energetic, intimate and entertaining, but it does tell a story we’ve heard many times before in LGBTQ cinema, which means it never quite hits as hard as you might hope.

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