'Stories of Our Lives': Film Review

Stories of Our Lives Still - H 2015
Courtesy of The Nest Collective

Stories of Our Lives Still - H 2015

A fresh, warm, visually ravishing look at queer life in East Africa.

Defying a climate of discrimination and homophobia, this award-winning anthology film dramatizes true accounts of gay experiences in Kenya.

A mix of journalistic chronicle, political protest and gorgeous visual poem, Stories of Our Lives is an anthology of five minidramas with LGBT themes from the East African republic of Kenya. It was made by the Nairobi-based art and activist group The Nest Collective, many of whose members prefer to conceal their identities to avoid possible persecution under Kenya’s notoriously draconian anti-gay laws. Last year, the project's executive producer George Gachara was arrested briefly for filming without an official permit.

Stories of Our Lives remains banned in Kenya, despite picking up acclaim and awards abroad. Last week, it made its U.K. debut at the BFI Flare festival in London. The topical theme and positive buzz should ensure further festival interest, though the compact 60-minute running time will stunt its theatrical potential.

The five dramas are mostly personal and domestic, but snippets of real news footage bring a broader political context. In 2012, an Anglican bishop in Mombasa called gays and lesbians a bigger threat to Kenya than terrorists. Last year, an attempt was made to pass a bill mandating that LGBT people could be stoned to death. It failed, but even consensual adult same-sex relations remain an imprisonable felony.

Given this backdrop, we might well have expected Stories of Our Lives to be an angry soapbox movie, or at least a worthy slice of preachy docudrama. But not so. Shot over several months on a single digital camera, the film has a luminous monochrome look and slickly edited polish that defies its minimal $15,000 budget. The music, by first-time director Jim Chuchu, is ambient and sensual. And the stories here are emphatically not what Chuchu calls “pathologized NGO tales.” Instead, they cover a broad spectrum of queer experience, from tragedy to comedy, unrequited love to defiant romantic bliss.

Stories of Our Lives began as a documentation project of real case studies that Chuchu and his team then turned into dramatic vignettes, each compressed into 12 minutes or less. The most bittersweet is "Athman," about a rural farm laborer with a secret crush on his co-worker. A tense confession of repressed desire is met more with bafflement than hostility, but it still drives the two apart. The most overtly sexual chapter is "Duet," about a black Kenyan researcher hiring a white British escort, Roman, during a business trip to the U.K. Their hotel-room encounter progresses from a comically awkward discussion of cultural and racial differences to erotic massage and more.

A pair of lesbian love stories bookend the film. In "Ask Me Nicely," two teenage girls begin an affair that earns both disgust from their teachers and temporary suspension from school. At home, one meets a boy and sleeps with him to test whether she is “totally purely gay,” but her experiment ends badly. In the closing chapter, "Each Night I Dream," two female lovers struggle in the face of angry mobs and government homophobia. Their escapist fantasy is a magical dream world of hand-held sparklers and idyllic wood land, a magical-realist sequence that has strong echoes of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Making impressive use of limited resources, Stories of Our Lives is clearly a passion project. A handful of the chapters feel too slight, and some of the unschooled performances feel a little stiff. All would have benefited from the extra breathing room afforded by the running time of a full-length feature. Even so, Chuchu and his team have made a brave, beautiful, timely film, which boldly stands up for hope and love in the face of bigotry and bullying.

Production company: The Nest Collective

Cast: Kelly Gichohi, Paul Ogola, Tim Mutungi, Mugambi Nthiga, Rose Njenga, Janice Mugo, Allan Bryan Weku, Olwenya Maina, Louis Brooke

Director: Jim Chuchu

Screenwriters: Jim Chuchu, Njoki Ngumi

Producer: Wangechi Ngugi

Cinematographers: Dan Muchina, Jim Chuchu

Editors: Dan Muchina, Jim Chuchu

Sales company: Big World Cinema

No rating, 60 minutes