'Rafiki' ('Friend'): Film Review

More significant for its politics than its originality.

Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu traces the bloom of a lesbian teen romance in the homophobic environment of a Nairobi housing estate in this minor-key drama banned in its home country.

The depiction of intolerance onscreen is mirrored in the decision by the Kenya Film Classification Board to slap a national ban on Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki (Friend) ahead of its international premiere in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section. That controversy, along with the scarcity of films by East African women dealing with queer themes, should nudge this gentle love story of two late-adolescent girls onto the radars of LGBT festivals and specialized distribution labels, even if the poignant but slender drama in every other respect is quite conventional.

Based on a prize-winning short story by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko, Rafiki, which was screened at the Mumbai Film Festival, went through the funding and development labs of a handful of major film festivals and has been several years in the planning. Which makes it disappointing that the script by Kahiu and Jenna Bass remains so undernourished in terms of its conflicts and confrontations.

Its simplistic observation of romantic love in its purest form colliding with political, religious, familial and societal intolerance seems designed to speak clearly to teenage audiences experiencing similar struggles between identity and oppression. Those well-meaning intentions only take the film so far, however, and mature audiences will be left wishing for greater narrative complexity. Too often, Kahiu resorts to Afro-pop music choices that underline the obvious rather than allow dramatic situations to build.

Set in a rundown Nairobi housing estate neighborhood, the movie starts in captivating style, with lanky protagonist Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) skateboarding along to breezy hip-hop accompaniment while Christopher Wessels' nimble camera captures the bustling street life of the small community. Kids twirl hula-hoops while men play checkers with metal bottle caps; street sweepers, knife sharpeners and seamstresses go about their tasks; food kiosk cooks prepare orders. Laundry is strung between apartment windows in a milieu in which everyone knows everyone else's business.

Kena carries herself with a gangly, androgynous swagger, hanging out and playing soccer with the local guys led by Blacksta (Neville Misati), and quietly flinching at his unsubtle hint, "You'll make a good wife." Her father John (Jimmy Gathu) runs the general store and is "The People's Choice" according to his campaign promise in an upcoming county election against the more robustly funded conservative businessman Peter Okemi (Dennis Musyoka). John is divorced from Kena's depressed schoolteacher mother (Nini Wacera), whose hopes that he'll come back to her disintegrate when she learns his new wife is pregnant with a son.

Keeping tabs on all this is resident gossip Mama Atim (Muthoni Gathecha), who owns the kiosk where her resentful daughter Nduta (Nice Githinju) works the counter, stewing over Blacksta's attention to Kena. They’re the first to notice when a flirty friendship sparks up between Kena and the daughter of her father's political opponent, Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), who tosses her multicolored braids and flashes her radiant smile with the sexy free-spiritedness of a born pop star.

At first, the mutual intoxication of the two young women makes them all but oblivious to the risks of openly showing affection in public, even if Kena is not insensitive to the homophobic slurs hurled by Blacksta's buddy at a friendless local gay guy. Kahiu understands the sensation of invulnerability that comes with young love. The girls find an understated feminist solidarity in their plans to do something exceptional with their lives — Kena to enter the medical profession and Ziki to travel.

While Kenya's anti-gay laws are touched on only through a church sermon, the sense of stifling convention is everywhere. Malicious forces in the neighborhood soon snap Kena and Ziki out of their illusory idyll when they become victims of violence. While this should be a dramatic gut punch, Kahiu's handling of the brutal episode is somewhat chaotic and ineffectual. Only afterwards, when the bloodied girls are subjected to mocking indifference from local police while their aggressors go unquestioned, does a strong sense of festering injustice take root.

For all its limitations, there are many moments of affecting tenderness in Rafiki, notably between Kena and Ziki but also Kena and her principled father, the least judgmental of the adult characters. John's apparent desire to be a force of positive change comes up against sad reality when he witnesses the rigid barriers blocking his daughter's happiness. And to her credit, Kahiu finds shadings even in seemingly unsympathetic characters like Ziki's haughty mother (Patricia Amira), who reveals unspoken sorrow over the harsh decision she and her husband make, ostensibly for their daughter's welfare.

This is a familiar story that now seems almost quaint in an age when LGBT rights are an accepted part of the social fabric of most Western countries. But there's a fresh, engaging giddiness to the love story, and a disarming naturalness to the chemistry between Mugatsia and Munyiva in the central roles, their relationship delicately conveyed with little more than kisses and caresses. The Kenya Film Classification Board's veto reportedly was dictated less by the depiction of intimacy than by the hopeful notes of the conclusion. In a country where homosexuality remains a criminal offense, that makes this sweet, modest movie a welcome progressive statement.

Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Nice Githinji, Muthoni Gathecha, Patricia Amira, Dennis Musyoka, Patricia Kihoro

Production companies: Big World Cinema, AfroBubbleGum, MPM Film, Shortcut Films, Ape & Bjorn, Rinkel Film, Razor Film, in association with Tango Entertainment
Director: Wanuri Kahiu
Screenwriters: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Bass, adapted from the short story
Jambula Tree, by Monica Arac de Nyeko
Producer: Steven Markovitz
Executive producer: Tim Headington
Director of photography: Christopher Wessels
Production designer: Arya Lalloo
Costume designer: Wambui Thimba
Editor: Isabelle Dedieu
Casting: Nini Wacera
Sales: MPM Premier
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)

84 minutes