In the Un Certain Regard category, which was created by honorary president Gilles Jacob to allow for some generational renewal in the festival’s programming grid, “Rafiki,” directed by newcomer filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu. The Nairobi-born director (b. 1980) had just one other feature-length film under her belt, “From a whisper,” before coming to Cannes, in the spirit of what was intended with this selection: brand-new, young and taking risks.
In “Rafiki” Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) eye each other from across the street, with a mixture of suspicion and attraction. The former is thin like a reed and reserved, a noble gaze. Ziki is full of color everywhere and likes to dance on the stairs with her two girlfriends. There’s a masculinity about Kena, she plays soccer “just like the boys,” and, after she notices Ziki staring at her, intently, she responds in kind. The sapphic love that develops between the two will put them at loggerheads with a community whose resentment of their love story is growing. In Kenya, as in some other African countries, if homosexuality isn’t banned by law, it is considered a deviant practice, one that is sure to send you straight to hell. This anti-homosexuality position is as pervasive in Africa as it is backward. One wonders, truly, when the African continent will be cured of such reactionary ideology.
The love scenes between Kena and Ziki are touching and beautifully shot, Kahiu mastering light and color. There’s a carefreeness about “Rafiki,” it’s not a militant film, there are no positions being taken. Even before today’s premiere, “Rafiki” was expected as the film-event of this Cannes Festival. Kahiu has been talked about in the press a lot, since a Kenyan film by a woman filmmaker is like a unicorn here. And it’s got Kenyan authorities incensed. The film, predictably, was banned in Kenya, and one of the film’s producers was even arrested.
The soundtrack was composed entirely by African musicians. “Rafiki” was adapted from a Ugandan novel, “Jambula Tree,” by the Ugandan author Monica Arac of Nyeko.