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November 09, 2018

Denver Film Festival - Rafiki


Wanuri Kahiu - 2018
Film Movement

Rafiki primarily takes place in a Nairobi neighborhood called the Slopes. Skateboard culture and hip-hop are two contemporary markers that contrast against the more traditional aspects of Kenyan life. Wanuri Kahiu's film was adapted from a short story by Ugandan Monica Arac de Nyeko, but there is also a variation on Romeo and Juliet.

Kena is outwardly boyish with her slender build, baseball cap, tight cornrows on her head with a short queue in the back, first introduced skating through her neighborhood. She spies the more flamboyantly feminine Zika, dancing to hip-hop with two girlfriends. Zika is immediately recognizable with her elaborate, multicolored weave. The two girls have just graduated high school, and want to pursue lives beyond the expect roles of wives and mothers. Kena is more tentative about her attraction to Zika. Adding conflict to the two girls' budding relationship is that their respective fathers are rivals for a local political position.

Aside from being financed primarily by European sources, Rafiki will most certainly be seen by more people outside of Kenya. In addition to homosexuality being punishable by imprisonment in Kenya, the film has essentially been banned in Kenya. Kahui sued to allow her film to get a week long run in Nairobi in order to qualify as Kenya's Oscar entry. Supa Modo, produced by a company founded by Tom Tykwer, was chosen to represent Kenya. There is some similarity here to the treatment of filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul who was considered something of an embarrassment to Thai officials until he won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2010. This also points to the discrepancy in how films are chosen by their respective countries for the Academy Award, with films chosen based more on how a country or culture is represented over cinematic merits.

Kahiu addresses the institutionalized and internalized homophobia as it exists in Kenya. The two girls are attacked by a mob following discovery by the neighborhood busybody. Beaten and bruised, Zika and Kena are the ones arrested. One of the interesting choices Kahiu has made is for most of the conversations between friends and family members to be in Swahili, while Kena and Zika speak to each other in English. In an interview, Kahiu mentions that the songs heard would be those that the characters would listen to. The frequent description of Rafiki as a "lesbian romance" ignores some of the cultural issues that are also part of the film. The title translates as friend, emphasizing the emotional bonding of the two girls. While Rafiki isn't the "fun and frivolous" view of Africa that Kahiu says she aspires to make, it avoids being heavy-handed, and is graced with optimism.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 9, 2018 07:29 AM