Film Review: Rafiki, MQFF

Adolescent love breaks the rules of a conservative African culture.
Film Review: Rafiki, MQFF

Rafiki directed by Wanuri Kahiu.

Rafiki is a film from Kenya about adolescent lesbian love, directed by Wanuri Kahiu, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko.

Rafiki is still banned in its own country despite screenings at festivals and awards being thrown at it everywhere else, plus strong rumours of an Oscar nomination (which saw the ban lifted for seven days for it to qualify). Rafiki is the first feature from Kenya to screen at Cannes, where it picked up two Un Certain Regard awards.

Kena is a serious young woman, played by first time actor Samantha Mugatsia. She spots the pink-dreadlocked Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) dancing in the streets and is entranced. Unfortunately, their two fathers are running against each other in the political arena so for Kena and Ziki simply being friends is problematic, let alone acting on their mutual attraction. None of this prevents the two girls moving towards each other. Ziki is the more playful and femme of the two, dressed in bright purples and pinks. She is also ambitious, pushing Kena to imagine a career and a greater life outside the constraints of suburban Nairobi. She takes risks by holding hands with Kena in church, while Kena, a soccer playing ‘tomboy’, becomes aware that her feelings for Zika run deeper than superficial physical attraction or an episode of rebellion.

Besides mesmerising performances from the two leads, elements distinguishing a by now commonplace story of homophobia include the film’s strong visual aesthetic. Kena, clad at first in muted earthy colours, is often shot in doorways and against buildings, framed in straight lines. Colour and pattern are significant; director Kahiu was inspired by African artists when it came to costumes and backdrops: when Kena is with Zika we have splashes of incandescent colour in the settings, bougainvillea blossoms in pinks and reds suggesting sensuality and abandon. Her deepening attachment to Ziki  is indicated by her choosing more pinks and patterns in her clothing. One scene, a conversation with her father, has her imagining Ziki who shifts in and out of an over-exposed shot, hinting at Kena’s fears for their future.

Another strong feature is the way Rafiki (meaning 'friend') embodies the repressive forces of Kenyan society in supporting characters without demonising them. Kena’s mother is superstitious, calling on ritual and religion to ‘save’ her unconventional daughter. Sexism dominates everyday life but this doesn’t prevent Kena being friends with the village stud, Blacksta (Neville Misati), a young man who openly admires Kena and is confused by her rejection of him. His is the conventional path of marriage which Kena knows is not for her. The girls’ parents are shown as loving and well-meaning, albeit domineering. A side story sees a mother discarded for a younger woman who distinguishes herself by conceiving a son, a nod to polygamous traditions which disadvantage many women. 

Mama Atim (Muthoni Gathea) is the town’s busybody, representing the lack of privacy in a close-knit community where everybody knows everybody else’s business. The film doesn’t avoid the ongoing threat of violence towards women, young gay women in particular, although it is here played down. A young gay man is a silent background figure throughout, hinting at a future of greater LGBTQI solidarity and safety.

Measured and masterful, Rafiki is quietly feminist, an engaging testament to queer courage and a tender first love story, as well as being a political commentary on the repressive forces acting against the LBGTQI  community in much of Africa.

Rating: 4 stars ★★★★

80 MINS 2018

15-21 March 2019
Melbourne Queer Film Festival

Liza Dezfouli

Thursday 14 March, 2019

About the author

Liza Dezfouli reviews film, live performance, books and occasionally music. She blogs about film and other things in a blog called Copy and Cake and writes another, somewhat less-measured blog about feminism and heteronormativity called WhenMrWrongfeelsSoRight. She can occasionally be seen in shows or in short films. For more: