Something that is generally agreed upon regarding film is its ability as a medium to give a voice to the marginalized. Films with a powerful onscreen message have the ability to spark change off screen, and Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is one such film. It follows the romance of two young women who are the daughters of competing politicians as they must hide their love from a society that still forbids homosexuality. The film is set in Kenya, where there are still anti-LGBT laws –the government wouldn’t even allow it to be shown there.
Rafiki screened at both Cannes Film Festival (making history as the first Kenyan film to premiere at the Festival) and the Toronto International Film Festival this year, where it received high praise. In the film, the title of which means “friend,” the relationship between Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) begins as a friendship that blossoms into something more. Their fathers are political rivals, putting more speculation on their relationship than the average friendship might receive. The girls are threatened to be exiled from their society if they are found out and could even potentially face jail time. While this notion can make the space they live in an intimidating one, Kahiu still celebrates the vibrant culture of Nairobi with an aesthetic she defines as AFROBUBBLEGUM, her bright, colorful vision for the future of filmmaking in Africa.
In spite of the film’s praise and its celebration of rich Kenyan culture, the film was banned by Kenya’s Film and Classification Board (KFCB) in April for its alleged “intent to promote lesbianism.” Kahiu sued the KFCB, claiming that the ban was damaging to her career. She has just recently won the legal battle, earning the film a temporary lift so that it can qualify as eligible for the country’s Best Foreign Language Film submission for the Oscars and screen in the country for the required seven-day theatrical run that must occur in the film’s home country.
While the lift on the ban may only have been temporary, the support for the film in Kenya has been immense. Its screenings have continuously been selling out, making it clear that this is a story that Kenyans want (and need) to see. The lift on the ban is a step forward for Kenyans, but the fact that it is only for a short time serves as a reminder that there is still a long way to go—not in its home country alone, but globally.
The ban itself was seemingly only lifted under the argument that it limited Kahiu’s artistic freedom as a creator, less so than for recognition of the fact that what they were false in claiming it is immoral to depict same-sex relations on screen. In fact, the KFCB never quite backed down from this sentiment. Rafiki was initially banned for including content in the film that was not in the original script that had been approved by the board, and when she was asked to remove the scenes from the film, Kahiu refused. Considering the highly conservative views held in Kenya, it is not surprising that the Kenyan government argues that movies with LGBTQ+ themes or content have the potential to morally corrupt audiences.
At the end of the day, Kahiu’s ability to get her film screened in her home country was a major success and will now set a precedent for future films that face the same struggle. But this raises the notion that while our society may have progressed in terms of the stories we now have the freedom to tell, films like Rafiki are clearly needed now more than ever. Stories of oppression are important to tell, as they are unfortunately still a reality for so many. What is so empowering about film as a medium is that it has the ability to influence the socio-political landscape and turn audiences’ minds to the issues and inequalities that the world is still faced with every day.
Several films have been acknowledged as responsible for rectifying laws or changing public opinion: Basil Dearden’s Victim was released at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain and was the first English-language film to use the word “homosexual” in its dialogue. Its release in the early 1960s is thought to have had a significant impact on shifting common public opinion and the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967.
Another example is Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit. Released in 1948, it is considered to be one of the first serious portrayals of mental illness in Hollywood film, as mental illness often faced inaccurate representation in cinema around this time and was misunderstood as something to be greatly feared. Shortly after the movie was released, 26 states in the US passed legislation to upgrade treatments for mental health — while it surely didn’t put an end to the problems surrounding this topic, it contributed to opening up a dialogue where it could be better understood.
Rafiki is yet another film that has brought the LGBTQ+ movement in Kenya a further step forward. While there is still much to be done globally, it is something to celebrate that the country’s official Oscar entry could now, in fact, be a lesbian film. As Kahiu’s film has shown, stories that are hard to tell are sometimes the most necessary. While we might think of the landscape we live in today as a progressive one, we still have a long way to go, and films like these will help us move forward, little by little.