Rafiki - Neon in darkness

Kate Fahy, 6/2/20

There's a lot to be said about a film that has the ability to permeate lasting feelings of - in equal measure - both joy and deep sadness. Wanuri Kahui's Rafiki (2019) follows the curious, bewitched, tender growth of a love between two young women, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). To their misfortune, their respective fathers happen to be political rivals in an upcoming local election in the city of Nairobi, Kenya. As such, their love is forbidden; a betrayal to their families. However this is only a microcosmic representation of a far greater patriarchal oppression of expression. In Kenyan cultural context, LGBTQ+ relationships, and in fact any personal expression of queer identity or lifestyle, are violently shunned. And yet, Rafiki demonstrates how queer culture, queer people, yearn to peak their beautifully colourful heads out of the darkness of the 
murky sea that they have been forced under. Kena and especially Ziki provide vibrant neon aesthetics throughout the film, particularly in one hopelessly joyous party scene.

Rafiki 's release and its subsequent reaction could not be more relevant to the issues that it confronts. The film was initially banned by the Kenyan classification board due to "its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans". The common confusion here between who is a threat to whom continues to truly baffle and enrage me, and Rafiki is sure to break your heart in its testament to reality, its valuable and rare perspective, and its affection towards those who are at real risk. After director Kahiu led a legal battle all the way up to the Supreme Court, the ban was eventually lifted for one week in order to encourage Rafiki's chances at an Oscar nomination. How generous.

Still, the UK release of the film coincided with the soul-paining news that Kenya's High Court had ruled against campaigners seeking to overturn a law banning gay sex. In other words, being gay remains a punishable criminal offence, and overt queerness must remain invisible if one desires a safe existence. Rafiki's largely European-funded production and distribution adds to these troubles. The rolling credits show financial support from Rotterdam Film Festival's renowned Hubert Bals Fund, as well as Berlinale funding. One wonders whether these funding bodies ever really had thoughts or priorities over domestic distribution - is this merely a European festival film created to be watched and pitied by European audiences? In my most cynical of voices, it is also problematic that its Kenyan ban gave rise to greater marketability and PR 'buzz' in Europe. In my less cynical tone, that buzz did lead to greater international support for a film, filmmaker, cast, and issue that very much deserve support and attention.

I came across a couple of reviews for Rafiki that claimed it told a story that had been told before. Reading between the lines here, one can assume that what they mean is a queer love story. Because once you've seen one you've seen them all, right? I couldn't disagree more strongly. I have never seen a film like this before, and it has stayed deeply imbedded in my thoughts and in my heart for almost a year, and doesn't seem to be going anywhere fast. This film is brimming full of love, pain, mystery, confusion, and speaks far beyond its screen-time. It lingers, permeates, provokes. It showcases the power of cinema, and for that alone it deserves to be shouted about globally.


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