Rafiki is a Kenyan film co-produced by South Africa’s Big World World Cinema. It was banned in Kenya by the Kenyan Film Classification Board for its queer themes, on the unjust, homophobic premise that it sought to ‘normalise homosexuality’, deeming it illegal to even own a DVD copy of it. But even so, it has managed to gain mass visibility. Rafiki has been met with resounding applause at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival since its historic world premiere on Wednesday as the first Kenyan film to be programmed at the festival’s Official Selection.
Director Wanuri Kahiu introduces two teen protagonists, played by Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, as the two lovers (Kena and Ziki) who have upset the Kenyan community. Rafiki is a lesbian romance film set in Kenya, and it’s a love story no more controversial than that of a heterosexual couple’s. However, East Africa’s queerphobic gatekeeping and laws against homosexuality make the fact this film has made it out of Africa onto the international scene, despite a ban in its home country, rather groundbreaking. Kahiu told Reuters that she was ‘really disappointed [by the ban], because Kenyans already have access to watch films that have LGBT content, on Netflix, and in international films shown in Kenya and permitted by the classification board itself.’
‘So to then just ban a Kenyan film because it deals with something already happening in society just seems like a contradiction,’ she added. Rafiki’s ban is reminiscent of the controversy around Xhosa South African movie Inxeba earlier this year, which was reclassified as a 18 SLNVP film and banned in some cinemas for representing a queer narrative, again revealing Africa’s gross prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community.
We’re always quick to applaud when films such as Rafiki and Inxeba: The Wound are screened at the likes of the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals, creating the opportunity for the rest of the world to appreciate their beautiful and necessary storytelling.