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Out, of Africa

Film Movement

Rafiki (2019)

In the apocryphal past, movies were made locally and shown locally, so the makers could make assumptions about what the audience would understand – or not. Cultural relevance was a given and issues of representation were not as fraught as they are currently becoming, so characters onscreen were designed to be coathangers for the audience to hang their own personalities onto. Smaller movies can be much more widely seen these days but now the marketplace is global, there are so many options it’s almost impossible to decide. Even as the market widens – and it’s possible to make a movie on your phone and upload it to the Internet for the world to enjoy – the stories which tend to achieve the greatest success tend to center the same pale, male and stale characters as ever. There’s backlash, of course. Marvel is finally being called out for making blockbusters for over a decade without yet acknowledging that gay people exist, for example. Luckily, in other parts of the cinematic galaxy, we still have movies about regular heroes, just about. “Rafiki” is about two of them. The incredible story of two Kenyan girls in love as a superhero film, I hear you say? That’s right. Being gay is illegal in Kenya, and therefore the mere idea of making a movie about a lesbian relationship is an impossible act. But director Wanuri Kahiu did it, and so we have to ask ourselves, was all this courage worth it?

I regret to say, yes and no. The girls are working-class Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and feminine Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), who meet when Ziki begins spending time in Kena’s neighborhood, an outer suburb of Nairobi full of apartment blocks and twitching curtains. Their meeting has the same emotional beats as the first encounters between Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” Kena’s dad, John Mwaura (Jimmi Gathu), whose shop is a neighborhood fixture, is standing for election, but so is Ziki’s wealthier dad, Peter Okemi (Dennis Musyoka), who also has the weight of the political machine behind him. The local church is the center of activity, not least because it’s the only place where Kena’s divorced parents interact, but Ziki is not wise enough to understand the neighborhood dynamic. She wears her hair in braids with pastel hair extensions, a rainbow halo around her, but seems to think she can move around Kena’s world without attracting attention. Kena knows better, but not enough to stop her. Ms. Mugatsia is a real find; her intelligence blasts through the screen, but so does her anxiety. We get a real sense of how she’s hidden who she is and why she’s so enchanted by the new girl. Ms. Munyiva doesn’t come across as strongly, mainly because the screenplay is weighted more in Kena’s favor, but her charm and recklessness make it clear why this love matters more than almost anything to her, too.

Of course, there’s a huge price to pay, and the movie doesn’t stint on making the girls pay it. The relentless and pervasive homophobia is difficult to take in this short movie. Western audiences can only imagine how much worse it is in real life. But this is the film’s greatest weakness. Sure, it might be true to life, but it’s also a bore. Lesbians are punished so relentlessly in life and art it would have been a breath of fresh air if something else had happened. My kingdom for the quiet encouragement of “Call Me by Your Name” or the tearful family affirmations of “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Of course, those were stories about men. Why is it so hard to imagine something better for women? It might have been unlikely in this cultural context, or indeed any other, but it would have been appreciated.

What is certainly appreciated is Ms. Kahiu’s modern eye. Cinematographer Christopher Wessels focuses on the Instagram-perfect colors of the city as it bursts open for the girls in love. This is a trick lifted from Ms. Kahiu’s previous movie, “From a Whisper,” in which a traumatized young woman leaves hearts all over Mombasa. But she was alone, and Ziki and Kena have each other, their complaints about their studies and their big dreams about the future. But when their love is discovered, things go wrong in the same way that they did in “Moonlight” – that is, the real people the characters are supposed to disappear, and the coathangers take over. The ending cheats in the same way, too.

The current representation wars are meant to ensure that cinema reflects real life. The trouble can be that the representation is done on the surface only, because filmmakers know that audiences hungry for affirmation will make a meal from the stone soup provided. Is it fair to say this about “Rafiki,” a film that required international funding to make and a lawsuit to be screened in its home country at all? Yes and no. The fact that this movie exists at all is a miracle, and it deserves to be seen as widely as possible, because stories like this require the support of audiences everywhere. It’s not a bad film, but it relies too much on the audience meeting Kena and Ziki halfway. If the girls in love had been able to breathe a little more on their own, separately or together, this movie could have stood squarely on its own two feet.


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