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‘Rafiki’ Breakout Wanuri Kahiu Lands Her First Studio Movie

The Kenyan filmmaker is on her way to stardom as she lends her visionary qualities to the LA romance ‘Covers.’
Film Movement
By  · Published on November 20th, 2018

Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu is on the rise in the best possible way. Her sweet and vital lesbian romance film, Rafiki, has made waves throughout 2018 for a myriad of reasons. On the less optimistic front, Rafiki has faced local censorship in Kenya for its purported “promotion” of LGBTQ themes. However, the film has still managed to gain a worldwide audience and critical acclaim at some of the most prestigious film institutions. Rafiki is the first Kenyan film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then, it has further appeared across the festival circuit, landing in Toronto, London, and Busan, among others.

Now, Kahiu is preparing to make a definitive leap to Hollywood for her next feature film. As reported by Deadline, she will direct Covers for Working Title and Universal Pictures. For now, details about the movie remain almost too scant; there isn’t even a plot summary for us to go off of. We merely know that Covers is a romance set in LA that was written by Flora Greeson, who has previously been attached to pen a movie about Prince starring Elizabeth Banks.

Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, who worked on projects such as Atonement and the Bridget Jones rom-com trilogy, will produce Covers. Universal had purchased the script preemptively and apparently went global in search for the perfect director to bring the narrative to life. I, for one, couldn’t be happier that Kahiu has ended up as the studio’s final choice for such an endeavor. Even without a definitive synopsis guiding our first impressions of the movie, the director’s short but fascinating filmography is enough to pique my fancy.

In an era that constantly calls for diversity and inclusiveness within Hollywood, the prospect of watching Kahiu’s strong filmmaking identity take root in (and maybe uproot) the studio system is fantastic. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to see her tackle another character-driven drama, but because she’s so good at doing it, we should celebrate that fact. Of Kahiu’s feature work thus far — Rafiki, as well as her initial debut movie From a Whisper — she has shown a clear aptitude for sensitivity and poignancy in her portrayals of a variety of relationships.

From a Whisper is based on the 1998 United States embassy bombings in East Africa; terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of over 200 people across both Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. The film was released in 2008 in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of these tragedies. However, Kahiu’s film isn’t actually a straightforward retelling of the circumstances of the bombings. Rather, From a Whisper focuses on the effects of trauma in the aftermath of the attacks. In the film, powerful parallels are drawn between the vagrant existence of a young artist and the quiet life of an intelligence officer, both of whom lost close interpersonal relationships as a result of the attacks.

What really makes From a Whisper soar is its willingness to linger with its protagonists as they messily figure out how to pick up the pieces of their lives after such a traumatic event. The film unfolds at a languid pace and meanders often due to fluid transitions between past and present timelines. There is a palpable impression of emptiness and loneliness whenever the artist Tamani and the officer Abu skirt around their anguish. Yet, From a Whisper manages to mine its connective flashback tissues for heartfelt if simple conversations. The affecting score that sometimes takes the place of any dialogue only makes the film all the more moving. From a Whisper does falter when it trades its naturalistic brushes of emotion for melodramatic speeches. Nevertheless, the movie doesn’t leave its protagonists hanging with no potential for healing. They get to slowly and beautifully come full circle.

The same can be said for Rafiki, in which Kahiu artfully navigates first love from its tentative beginnings toward some semblance of a hopeful ending. It is an equally simple film compared to From a Whisper, in that it tends to zoom in on a singular event that is largely affected by the wider implications of an issue film. Based on the 2007 short story Jambula Tree, Rafiki is a Romeo and Juliet-esque tale featuring gay black girls. Its main characters Kena and Ziki fall in love in spite of their vastly different backgrounds and for the most part, it is pure, warm, and relatable.

Set against potential ostracisation from their rival political families as well as a vastly conservative local community, Kena and Ziki take furtive forays into puppy love in Rafiki, finding safety in each other. Their relationship blossoms organically and we can easily root for them. This is certainly helped along by Kahiu’s expert command of her craft. The emotionality inherent in Rafiki‘s more pedestrian screenplay is bolstered by a vibrant soundtrack, intentional and effective use of colors in its imagery, and powerhouse performances from its cast. Enlisting first-time actors Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva for its leads only adds to the authenticity of Rafiki, which — in irreverent and feel-good Afrobubblegum fashion — exists as a strong political statement simply because of its simplicity.

I’m certain that Kahiu can deliver the same caliber of filmmaking in Covers, despite the fact that this new project is a total mystery. Despite being only two features in, she knows just how to extricate emotional potency from quiet stories.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)