Rafiki (CIFF 2018)

Review by Kate Blair

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Familiar struggles threaten to keep two women apart in this charming, queer coming-of-age tale set in Nairobi, Kenya. In the film, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) is immediately taken with Kiki (Sheila Munyiva) when she spots her hanging out with friends, dancing in the streets. Right away, the two young women share a glance—the first of many as they subtly gauge one another and their own feelings. The protagonists face discrimination from their community that necessitates these types of under-the-radar communiqués. But the film has a hopeful core that ultimately sticks with you longer than its more difficult moments.

In one scene, the two women seek shelter in a van during a rain shower. The tension between them mirrors the oncoming storm. Rain batters the windows and flowers outside the window create a purplish glow inside the vehicle. For a long time the two young women merely look at one another until, overwhelmed, Kena runs off. The camera lingers on Ziki’s face, who appears charmed rather than put off by Kena’s hasty exit. She knows as well as the audience that the two will come together. And come together they do: dancing in day-glo-lit clubs and even returning to the van for a candlelight tryst.

In interviews, director Wanuri Kahiu has noted that she wants to make films that are fun and joyful. Indeed, the film’s positive ending initially led to a ban in Kenya, where gay sex remains illegal (it’s worth mentioning that this law was introduced under British colonial rule). The ban on the film was subsequently lifted, allowing it to play in sold-out theaters and enter the Foreign Oscar competition. Still, there are plenty of moments of darkness and trauma in this film that are difficult to watch. That being said though, it made my gay heart swell to see the two protagonists falling for each other. It’s the kind of film that could be a catalyzing moment for many young people just discovering themselves.

Overall, the film is overwhelmingly positive. Its color scheme, saturated in pink and purple hues, also contributes to an overall mood of youthful optimism. The dreamy aesthetic brings to mind femme-focused digital spaces like Instagram, where young folks can explore and live out their hopes in environments that aren’t yet supporting of their identities. The world is still coming around on gay rights, but in Kahiu’s film at least, the kids are gonna be alright.