Hope and joy, plus re­silience

Wa­nuri Kahiu fought to show her film in Kenya


>>> The first time Wa­nuri Kahiu re­mem­bers see­ing African peo­ple on­screen fall­ing in love was when she was a teenager.

“Amer­i­cans were fall­ing in love and Euro­peans were fall­ing in love,” she said, “but Africans, we were never fall­ing in love. The first time I saw an African cou­ple even hold hands on screen, I was 16.”

So for her sec­ond fea­ture as a writer-di­rec­tor (fol­low­ing her 2009 de­but “From a Whis­per”), the Nairobi, Kenya-born film­maker “wanted to be able to tell a love story about us. “I just wanted to see our­selves fall in love,” she said. Kahiu found that op­por­tu­nity in “Rafiki,” an adap­ta­tion of Ugan­dan writer Mon­ica Arac de Nyeko’s short story “Jam­bula Tree,” which was awarded the pres­ti­gious Caine Prize for African Writ­ing in 2007. The 90-minute drama fol­lows two teenage girls (Sa­man­tha Mu­gat­sia and Sheila Mun­yiva) whose love for each other is op­posed by their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties.

Ahead of the pic­ture’s AFI Fest screen­ings on Sun­day and Wed­nes­day, Kahiu spoke to The Times via phone from New Zea­land about “Rafiki,” its ini­tial ban in her home coun­try and the en­dur­ing mes­sage of the film — even though it wasn’t se­lected as Kenya’s

of­fi­cial Academy Awards sub­mis­sion.

The film cen­ters on a queer re­la­tion­ship be­tween two girls in a coun­try that, from the out­side look­ing in, isn’t the safest for les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der peo­ple. Did that give you any pause in the start?

No. From the mo­ment I read it, I knew that it would be a bit of a chal­lenge, but love is love so I wasn’t con­cerned about it at all. The story it­self was writ­ten by a Ugan­dan writer and set in Uganda, so it didn’t seem like it was [a prob­lem] ... and now we’re over 11 years af­ter it was writ­ten. I knew it’d be a chal­lenge, but I didn’t think it’d be as ma­jor as it be­came.

Though ini­tially banned by Kenyan au­thor­i­ties, the film re­ceived a week­long the­atri­cal run af­ter you sued on the ba­sis of an in­fringe­ment on free­dom of ex­pres­sion and free speech. Why was it im­por­tant to sue the Kenyan gov­ern­ment in or­der to al­low peo­ple to have ac­cess to this film?

When­ever some­body stands in your way and tells you your work is not valid or your work can­not be seen, they start to in­ter­fere with your very ba­sic rights to work. And I know that I’m cre­ated to work. Past this film, I don’t know what other is­sues the Kenyan film clas­si­fi­ca­tion board would have with the work that I cre­ate. So it was be­gin­ning to be an un­ten­able sit­u­a­tion for me to con­tinue to work in Kenya, which I want to be able to do. And to be able to work in Kenya, I needed to go to court and say, “You’re stop­ping my abil­ity to work.” Also this idea of a lim­i­ta­tion of imag­i­na­tion or telling peo­ple what they can imag­ine and what they can­not imag­ine, it didn’t sit well.

On top of that, think­ing about any young artists who are watch­ing this sense of dis­crim­i­na­tion that was hap­pen­ing to our projects — and the words that were used to de­scribe me per­son­ally and my work — was not right. I can’t imag­ine what it would be like for other artists com­ing up and them watch­ing an­other artist be si­lenced. It’s not an en­vi­ron­ment that fos­ters a ro­bust cul­ture and it’s just some­thing that was re­ally frus­trat­ing and painful. I needed to say some­thing, and luck­ily there was a group of artists who call them­selves a creative econ­omy work­ing, and to­gether we pushed back.

You’ve de­scribed the film as “Afro Bub­blegum.” What do you mean by that?

Afro Bub­blegum is art and cul­ture from Africa and peo­ple of color, and it just has hope and joy at the cen­ter of it. It’s in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to me to show images of hope and joy be­cause, apart from what we’re known to be in me­dia and in films, which is peo­ple who are al­ways strug­gling and seek­ing sur­vival, I feel like we needed to show our­selves as peo­ple of joy and peo­ple in pur­suit of hap­pi­ness. And that’s why we started to de­fine work as Afro Bub­blegum. And it’s not just my­self but other artists who started to do that. Then what hap­pened is, the mo­ment you started to speak “Afro Bub­blegum” into the world, other artists started to do the same.

And how do you think that shows up in “Rafiki”? I know there were a lot more bright colors than I ex­pected.

I chose to show Afro Bub­blegum in the story and mak­ing sure there is a sense of the girls fall­ing in love. But also the color pat­tern was one that we used to ex­plain the joy and the metaphor of love that was in the girls’ lives, and it was im­por­tant to use those colors in that way. The mu­sic is also quite Afro Bub­blegum in its se­lec­tion. It was very fresh and fun.

The film was the first from Kenya to ever pre­miere at Cannes, and it’s since been win­ning a lot of awards on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit. What does it mean to see the film is be­ing well re­ceived by all of th­ese dif­fer­ent au­di­ences?

I think it’s great, and it’s ex­tra­or­di­nary how peo­ple feel seen by watch­ing the movie ... and they feel like they’re ac­knowl­edged. And I think that’s the power of film. The strong­est thing that has res­onated is the young LGBT com­mu­nity who flock to the film, who un­der­stand it, who love it, and who are us­ing it in Kenya. A lot of peo­ple use it to talk to their par­ents about com­ing out.

In the one week that it showed in Kenya, it did a re­mark­able amount for the young LGBT com­mu­nity there be­cause they were able to use it as a jump-off; they were able to cel­e­brate their own life, their own love. And they were able to start con­ver­sa­tions with their par­ents. That was huge and such a beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful thing … I never could have fore­seen the things that this film has done, not only for my­self, but for the au­di­ences who have watched it.

What other re­sponses have you seen the film spark back home?

It also started con­ver­sa­tions with the more con­ser­va­tive peo­ple in so­ci­ety in terms of the ex­is­tence of dif­fer­ent types of love, which is very won­der­ful. I see the ef­fects of that in my own fam­ily. I see an open­ness to have con­ver­sa­tions where once con­ver­sa­tions were in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult. So that’s the progress that I see. But also, it’s part of a larger con­ver­sa­tion of what we are al­lowed to say, a con­ver­sa­tion about free­dom of ex­pres­sion, which is one that hasn’t been had be­fore be­cause though our constitution al­lows free­dom of ex­pres­sion, free­dom of cre­ativ­ity, it’s never been tested.

This is the first time we’re test­ing the constitution and say­ing, “Well if this is what the constitution says, why are we still us­ing colo­nial laws to ban and cen­sor when our constitution su­per­sedes any laws that were made be­fore it?” It’s a great time to start un­pack­ing the con­ver­sa­tions about who we are as a demo­cratic so­ci­ety and what in­for­ma­tion we should have ac­cess to.

What does that re­sponse tell you about the film ap­petite of au­di­ences in Kenya?

I think that, like any other au­di­ence, we’re all look­ing for a story, some­thing we can watch and see our­selves [in]. The idea of rep­re­sen­ta­tion has never been more im­por­tant than now be­cause we have the abil­ity to see our­selves. But any­time that we are de­nied our abil­ity to see our­selves the way we want to see our­selves is an in­fringe­ment on our rights to be able to par­tic­i­pate in a mean­ing­ful way with cul­ture and with arts.

When the ban was lifted and we sold out the­aters for the seven days that the film played, it re­ally re­in­forced the [need for] the kind of sto­ries that we want to be able to see of our­selves. We want to see good friends, we want to see good sto­ries and we want to see our­selves in love some­times, as well as en­joy­ing ev­ery dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion.

With the right kind of mar­ket­ing and the right kind of push and the right kind of sto­ries, I think that data is be­gin­ning to show that we can also con­trib­ute to box of­fice — which is ex­actly what hap­pened with “Black Pan­ther.” “Black Pan­ther” re­al­ized the new au­di­ences and I think that films done right can do the same thing.

As “Rafiki” con­tin­ues to be re­ceived world­wide, and up next at AFI Fest, what do you hope au­di­ences are tak­ing away from it?

I have to first ac­knowl­edge that it is so great that it is be­ing seen in L.A. I at­tended UCLA at the film school, so for this film to be watched in L.A. feels like it is com­ing back to its sec­ond home. … I am so, so grate­ful for that. I would like the feel­ing of fall­ing in love to res­onate with the au­di­ence. No mat­ter where we come from in the world, we all fall in love the same way. We’re all awk­ward. We’re all shy. We’re all full of angst. We’re all silly and we all laugh and gig­gle in the same way all around the world when we fall in love. And this is just my con­tri­bu­tion to us fall­ing in love, to hu­man­ity fall­ing in love.

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

KENYAN Wa­nuri Kahiu had to sue to get “Rafiki” shown at home. The film is now at AFI Fest.

AFI Fest

“RAFIKI” is a love story be­tween young Kenyan women por­trayed by Sa­man­tha Mu­gat­sia, left, and Sheila Mun­yvia. It’s at AFI Fest.

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