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Rafiki director Wanuri Kahiu keeps fighting for lesbian film release in Kenya

Nick Duffy October 16, 2018

Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu (LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty)

Rafiki director Wanuri Kahiu has vowed to continue the fight for her film to be released in Kenya, after it was banned for promoting “gayism.”

The Kenyan film, a love story about the daughters of two politicians, has earned acclaim at festivals across the world but remains banned in its home country after state media censors took exception to its LGBT+ content.

Rafiki was granted a temporary seven-day release in the country last month to allow it to meet Oscars qualification rules, but Kahiu has said she will fight on to get the ban lifted permanently.

Speaking at a screening in London on Saturday, the director explained: “We went to court to say, can you please let it run for seven days so it can qualify to be an Oscars submission? That’s how we go the ban lifted [temporarily], which was great.

“The judge made it super clear, she said, ‘I don’t think Kenyans will have an issue with this film.’

“There’s this new East African word called ‘gayism,’ and the conversation was about that, how this film is promoting and spreading ‘gayism.’ The judge said, ‘No, you don’t catch it,’ and lifted the ban.”

Wanuri Kahiu attends the UK Premiere of Rafiki (Jeff Spicer/Getty)

She added: “We’re going back into court to continue to fight for the larger freedom of expression case [to secure a permanent release].

“We have a really young constitution but our constitution hasn’t been tested yet. Freedom [of] expression is one bit.

“The laws that ban the film are colonial laws, and we are asking for the laws to be updated so that they reflect the constitution that we have. There’s nothing in the constitution that says we can’t make films like this.

“I never considered myself an activist… but my work became work that you needed to advocate for. I was pushed into a space where I had to advocate for the work I was creating.”

The filmmaker also explained why the love story is titled Rafiki, which is the Swahili word for “friend.”

The two main characters in Rafiki, Kena and Ziki (Rafiki)

She said: “The reason we called the film Rafiki is that so often when same-sex couples in Kenya are in a relationship, they can’t refer to themselves as what they truly are.

“You can’t say, ‘This is my boyfriend,’ ‘This is my girlfriend,’ ‘This is my wife,’ ‘This is my husband.’

“You say ‘This is my friend,’ because that’s the limit of that your language will allow without getting into trouble. We called the film Rafiki as a result.”

Of working on the film, Wanuri added: “What’s been really curious about it is the concept of erasure, or the idea that we refuse to see people, has been quite a challenging thing to approach. How can you deny that people exist?

“When the film came out and was banned, I felt very much it was denying the existence of people and trying to erase them out of history and out of the present. Those things were quite a concern to me.”

The two main characters in Rafiki, Kena and Ziki (Rafiki)

She added: “Also the idea of politicising love. If you’re a straight, white couple, it’s not political. Love is not political. Any other point that you start othering people, it becomes more and more political.

“I started very actively to reject the idea that Rafiki is political, I feel like it’s a love story, and I feel like it’s belittling when we start only referring to work about love as political, as though ‘you guys are not falling in love, you’re falling in political! What you feel is not real, it’s a demonstration.'”

A colonial-era penal code in Kenya criminalises sodomy, which is interpreted as sex between men. Sex acts between women are not specifically referenced by the archaic law, but lesbians can face extreme persecution in the country.

Rafiki shattered box office records in the country during the seven days it was permitted to run.

Cinemas in Nairobi rapidly added extra screenings to the film to keep up with the demand from sold-out crowds.

The Academy Awards nominations are announced in January 2019, with Wanuri hoping for a nod in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

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