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© 2017 The Strand Magazine

Rafiki, or the futility of politicizing love

November 30, 2018

‘Let’s make a pact, become something real’. With a whole religious, social, political and moral order positioned against homosexuality, Kena and Ziki will be in a rather difficult position to keep their promise. Set in Kenya’s contemporary Nairobi, Rafiki (meaning “friend” in Swahili) is an ambitious African romance movie, which beautifully depicts the struggle of same-sex love in Kenya. A whole superstructure and social circle doing its best to repress what is considered an anomaly of sentiments. But Rafiki is much more than a political point. It is first and foremost a love story, an ode to, indeed, the depoliticization of love.

 

 

Kena and Ziki are the daughter of two rival politicians, who unluckily fall in love in the midst of their father’s campaign for local election. Middle-class and in their late teenage years, the two women meet each through a mutually fantasizing gaze. A simple look through which nothing is said, but everything quickly understood. Though at first quite cautious, the two rapidly begin to date each other in a discrete, secret bubble. Both know the risk taken by the mere fact of their relationship - a crime of first importance repeated every now and then at the local Mass. Their innocent love relationship thus progressively confronts itself to, almost, insurmountable obstacles. Because all of the efforts made by their abhorred environment are ultimately futile in face of their nature, of human nature. 

 

Colorful and disruptive in its form, Wanuri Kahiu’s movie both re-transcribes a very Kenyan atmosphere and innovates, plays with the shots. Interesting formalist choices can be noticed. Firstly, the use of cloth and their colors to communicate complementarity between Kena and Ziki : in the Director’s own words during the Q&A, the choices in clothes’ colors were made to suggest an evolution in the relation - ‘the more the two stayed with each other, the more the colors were complementary’. A second choice made by Kahiu, in the editing, was to interrupt some shots of the couple’s conversation for the scenes in which they cuddled : she explains that breaks in the lover’s dialogue forces the viewer to recognize that, the important thing that we retain of those moments are not the words, but ‘their essence’, ‘the feeling of it’. There is according to Kahiu ‘a language of feeling in love’, which makes all of these dialogues quite ‘blurry’ in our memories, as what we retain of them was mainly their deep feeling. The film's form, in short, is an attempt to coincide with the feeling of love. 

 

 

The movie’s characters procure a hearty realism, through their strong expressiveness and impassioned looks. Very talented, the actress of Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) could break anyone’s heart for her innocence and good intentions. Her acting becomes all the more appraisable when one realizes that she was recruited without any prior cinematic experience : the director, searching for her main actress, simply spotted her at a bar and invited her to the audition. ‘I met her at a party, and I thought to myself, “this is her”’ Kahiu rejoices. Other characters, such as Kena’s mother or the priest, procure to the audience a natural and realist acting that unfolds seemingly without effort. 

 

African cinema is on the rise, Kahiu raises no doubts about it. The preeminent screening of "Rafiki" at the London Film Festival attests to this clearly. She has left for film students and creative youngsters some useful tips - the first is one of confidence, of saying ‘what you want to say’, being unafraid in ‘having an opinion’. The second is one of perseverance, patience and resilience in climbing the industry’s ladders: as you will

'necessarily' encounter adversity at every turn. The last tip is one of creativity, which she concedes to me after the session: to develop one’s creativity in the cinema industry, one must be a writer; do not only film, but ‘write, write creatively’. As much as movies are visuals they are narrational and thematical, and these contents should, as much as possible, overflow unto the film’s form. 

 

 

 

Love was born free, but from every direction it is wanted unchained, and controlled. Rafiki questions the constant politicizing of something that should not be. How can the two lesbian lover’s natural affection remain real, when the reality of a whole environment is opposed to it? The lightness of the initial love subdues itself for the heaviness of external politicization. The director, which does not consider herself as a political activist, became herself confronted to political issues in Kenya because of a movie that ‘promoted’ same-sex love - in a country that legally and culturally forbids it. It was banned before being displayed, reason given of a ‘too hopeful ending’ (colonial laws on freedom of expression, still in place in Kenya, brought her to court with an accusation that the film ‘promoted gazing’). So within, so without : the issue concerning homosexuality in Kenya is far from being resolved, and arguably likewise across a main part of the world. 

 

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