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'Rafiki': The Lesbian Love Story That Kenya Banned And Then Unbanned

Sep 28, 2018
Originally published on September 29, 2018 6:00 am

Even in the middle of the day, in middle of the week, the theater was completely packed.

Hundreds had come to watch Rafiki, a movie about two young Kenyan women who are full of life, joy and wonder. Kena is a great student; she plays football and hangs out with the guys. And Ziki is the free spirit — cotton candy dreads and a smile full of mischief.

At one point, inside an abandoned van, the two realize they've fallen for each other. They touch, they look in each others' eyes. At the theater, you could almost hear the audience holding its breath — and as their lips touched, there was applause.

Over the past week, there has been a small revolution happening across movie screens in Kenya. For the first time, a same-sex love story is playing on the big screen, sparking conversations about freedom of expression, the constitution and finally feeling heard.

After the movie, the theater lobby is buzzing. Alex Teyie, 25, is sitting with a group of friends, discussing what just happened.

"It's like, a queer movie in Nairobi in 2018," she says. "That's just fantastic to see."

Rafiki is a milestone here, where gay sex is illegal. A few years ago, the film Stories of Our Lives, which profiles several LGBT Kenyans, was banned. It was so controversial that some of the filmmakers feared retaliation and legal consequences. So for a long time, they remained anonymous.

The Kenya Film Classification Board used many of the same arguments to ban Rafiki. In a letter banning the film, Ezekiel Mutua, the outspoken and controversial head of the KFCB, said the film "undermined the sensibilities" of Kenyans.

"Rafiki contains homosexual scenes that are against the law, the culture and moral values of the Kenyan people," Mutua said in a statement in April. "The film seeks to overtly promote lesbianism."

The film's director, Wanuri Kahiu, sued the KFCB saying the ban was not only an affront to her constitutional rights but would also keep the movie from being considered for the Oscars. One of the requirements for a nomination is that a movie is screened at least seven days in its home country. While deciding on the merits of the case, Kenya's high court issued a temporary injunction, allowing Rafiki to be screened for seven days, from September 23 to 29.

Teyie's friend, Valary Mumbo, says the ruling is bittersweet. She wishes the film were playing for months so Kenyans in other cities and villages could watch it. But she can't help but feel glee that two theaters were jam-packed on a weekday.

"It's really good to see that Kenyans are waking up," she says. "Yeah, they're good. They are woke."

Over the phone from Los Angeles, Kahiu says they had "won the battle, but we have to continue with the war." Rafiki was the first Kenyan movie to screen at the Cannes Film Festival in France and she says she was heartbroken when it was banned at home.

"The case has become larger than the film, because the case is not about Rafiki," she says. "The case is about freedom of expression."

In a lot of ways, this is just one instance in which Kenya is coming to terms with one of the most liberal constitutions on the African continent. Courts are currently weighing cases about separation of powers; they are hearing challenges to the country's anti-sodomy laws. And here, the court is going to decide whether Kahiu has the right to tell a love story that challenges some of the country's conservative moorings.

In a statement, the film classification board called the temporary halt on its ban "a sad moment and a great insult."

Kahiu says she is simply a filmmaker who wants to tell a love story with authentic characters. She says she just wanted to show the beauty and heartbreak that ensues when two black LGBT characters follow their heart.

"That was the point, that it doesn't matter who you are, love is love and that is an absolute universal, basic language," she says.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Over this week, there's been a small revolution in Kenya across movie screens. For the first time, a same-sex love story is on the big screen. And NPR's Eyder Peralta reports it's making people consider freedom of expression, the constitution and finally feeling they've been heard.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: I watched "Rafiki" in a packed theater in the middle of the day. It's a movie about Kena and Ziki, two young women full of joy and wonder.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RAFIKI")

SHEILA MUNYIVA: (As Ziki) Let's make a pact that we will never be like any of them down there.

PERALTA: And at one point, inside an abandoned van, the two women realize they've fallen for each other. They touch. They look in each other's eyes. And then they kiss. At the theater, you could almost hear the audience holding its breath - and as lips touched, applause.

ALEX TEYIE: It's, like, a queer movie in Nairobi in 2018. It's just fantastic to see.

PERALTA: After the movie, in the lobby, I find 25-year-old Alex Teyie sharing a smile with her friends.

VALARY MUMBO: It's really good to see that - yeah - Kenyans are waking up. Yeah. They're good. They're woke.

PERALTA: "Rafiki" is a milestone here, where gay sex is illegal. A few years ago, the gay film "Stories Of Our Lives" was banned in Kenya. It was so controversial that some of the filmmakers remained anonymous. The film classification board also banned "Rafiki," but a court put that ban on hold temporarily. A judge said "Rafiki" would be allowed a seven-day screening period so it would be eligible for an Oscar nomination.

Valary Mumbo says the ruling is bittersweet. She wishes the movie were playing for months so Kenyans in cities and villages could watch it. But she can't help but feel glee that two theaters were jam-packed in the middle of a weekday.

WANURI KAHIU: I think we won the battle, but we still have to continue with the war.

PERALTA: That is what Wanuri Kahiu, the director. "Rafiki" was the first Kenyan film to screen at Cannes. And she says she was heartbroken when it was banned at home, so she sued.

KAHIU: The case has become larger than the film and - because the case is not about "Rafiki." The case is about freedom of expression.

PERALTA: In a lot of ways, this is just one instance in which Kenya is coming to terms with one of the most liberal constitutions on the continent. Courts are weighing cases about separation of powers. They are hearing challenges to the country's anti-sodomy laws. And here, the court is going to decide whether Kahiu has the right to tell a love story that challenges some of the country's most conservative moorings.

In a statement, the film classification board called the temporary injunction a, quote, "sad moment and a great insult." Kahiu says she just wanted to show characters of color, LGBT characters, following their hearts, and the beauty and heartbreak that often entails.

KAHIU: And that was the point - is that it doesn't matter who you are. Love is love. And that is an absolute, universal, basic language.

PERALTA: The movie is a love story. And she hopes that beyond the politics, beyond the legal battle, that's what Kenyans walk away with. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.