“We Truly Love Our Country” — An Interview with ‘Rafiki’ Director Wanuri Kahiu

This interview is by our guest writer, Redmond Bacon.

The Cannes film festival made history this year with the inclusion of Rafiki, the first Kenyan film to premiere along The Croisette. Playing as part of Un Certain Regard, it is also a ground-breaking piece of Kenyan filmmaking for its loving depiction of a same-sex relationship. I sat down with the director Wanuri Kahiu to discuss the ban on the film, the importance of religion in Kenyan culture, and why homophobia is un-African.

Rafiki (2018)

Redmond Bacon: Can you explain the situation regarding the decision to ban the film in your country?

Wanuri Kahiu: The film was banned. This means it can’t be broadcasted, exhibited, distributed or be in anybody’s possession within the Republic of Kenya. That includes the poster and the trailer, although the trailer cannot be suppressed because it’s on the internet. But if we were to get a poster here and take it back home [then] we would be breaking the law. And it is possible to appeal, but you have to appeal to the same board that banned the film. So right now, what we’re doing is just concentrating on being here and being present in Cannes to represent the film. Once we get home we’ll figure out what the way forward is.

Bacon: Has anything changed in Kenya since you started making the film in 2007?

Kahiu: Absolutely. We have a new constitution. It’s eight years old now and within the constitution, our identity is protected. However you identify yourself is protected under the constitution. So whatever race, religion, identity you have is protected under the constitution. What is penalised is what they call “acts of unnatural sex”. But right now there is a case in court challenging the criminalisation of the act because in order to prove the act, you violate privacy, which is in the constitution. So there is progress because first, we have a constitution that identifies that, and secondly we have court cases that are pushing back on the cases of human rights.

Bacon: Are these unnatural acts defined?

Kahiu: Yes. But it’s curious because what they define as unnatural sex could happen to a heterosexual couple. Because of its sodomy, what they call anilingus, thigh sex; even caressing on top of clothes. It’s quite defined. Not sure they got everything in, but they got as much as they could.

Bacon: So how did you go about finding financing for the movie?

Kahiu: Oh my gosh, it took forever. It took about six, seven years to find financing for the film. We tried every avenue. We tried to fundraise within our own country which was tricky, actually a little impossible. We ended up finding many different co-production partners in Europe and finance in Lebanon and the United States. But it took seven years to be able to just gather little bits of money to be able to shoot.

Bacon: Were there times when you thought about stopping?

Kahiu: Absolutely, yeah. The year before we shot, I said to my producer Steven, “We need to set a date. If by this date we cannot make the film we really just have to move on. Because we cannot keep having this emotional relationship with a film that is not being made.” It was very challenging. I so appreciate Steven for that, because Steven was just like, “Let’s start shooting with whatever money we have, and we’ll keep fundraising [throughout production].” We kept fundraising throughout, even through post-production, even before we got to the festival. He had such belief and thank God for that. He had so much drive that he motivated me to keep going.

Bacon: Is homophobia very widespread in Kenya?

Kahiu: I think homophobia has spread through the world. But my argument is that homophobia is un-African. The only word I think that describes the spirit of Africa, if there is any such a thing to ascribe to a whole continent, is the word “ubuntu.” It seems “to be one of the few words,” that is almost present [throughout Africa]. Its a word that means oneness or unity. If that word is present in so many places, yet we’re ostracising people in our community, then obviously we’re going against the African spirit. So I would say that homophobia is un-African.

Rafiki (2018)

Bacon: Religion is very present in the film. Can you explain the importance of religion in the film?

Kahiu: The majority of Kenya is about 80% Christian. But along the coastal regions, such as Mombassa, it’s 80% Muslim. But either way, we still have a very religious space. So when we were making the film it was obvious. We made it in a neighbourhood where people go to church and where people are religious. It seemed very in keeping with the story and very in keeping with the characters that there would be a religious element to it. And we wanted to have that conversation that people would try to cure it or exorcise it, like they did with Kena. It’s important to have that conversation because we wanted to show one of the ways people are restrained.

Bacon: Will change have to come through a religious context?

Kahiu: I think that change comes through people. Because I truly believe that the spirit of religious texts is communion and kindness and loving and treating each other the same. I truly believe that’s the spirit of most religious texts. I believe Desmond Tutu said the same thing, and also the Pope has been very clear about what he thinks about the LGBT community and being inclusive. If we were to follow these leaders we might be moving towards a more positive space in this world.

Bacon: The film was banned because of the ending, which ends on a positive note. Was it important for you to keep it?

Kahiu: Absolutely. They asked me to change the film because they thought it was too hopeful. They said it wasn’t remorseful enough. When we said we wouldn’t re-edit the film, the film was banned. They felt that the hopeful ending was promoting homosexuality. My argument was: every community in Kenya, regardless of how marginalised [they are], has the right to be in Kenya, and the right to hope, and they have to feel a sense of belonging because that’s their country. That is the one piece of the film that is 100% in keeping with the spirit of the constitution, and the national anthem which [promotes] peace, love [and] unity. It was incredibly important to keep that. Incredibly. I didn’t want to change that.

Bacon: Could you tell us more about AFROBUBBLEGUM, and the idea of promoting Africa in popular culture.

Kahiu: AFROBUBBLEGUM has become a genre. It’s also a media company. More than anything its been adopted as a genre. Its a genre of work that represents Africa in a hopeful, joyful, fun, fierce or frivolous way. It has to have fun and hope at the centre of it. Because we need new images of Africa to counter what Chimamanda [Ngozi Adichie] calls “the single story”. The idea that Africa is sad, or deserves pity and sympathy. We want to push back to say we are joyful people and we deserve pride. We deserve recognition of our success, rather than just attention to our obstacles. Rafiki is a perspective of a happy, loving [and] fun part [of Africa]. It is difficult as well, but there’s also such joy, kindness and softness in the relationship with the girls. It was important to show that.

Rafiki (2018)

Bacon: What is the significance of the colour pink in the film?

Kahiu: Nairobi is incredibly colourful. We wanted it to feel that the world they are in is colourful and claustrophobic when they are with other people. [Then] when they are together by themselves, it was light and pastel and softer, as if that’s where they found peace and freedom. In a lovingly, cheesy way, we wanted to make sure this film is told from a feminine perspective. And I just loved what pink did. Even though we’re working towards a colour/gender-neutral world where pink isn’t associated with man or woman, it still has a feeling of softness and lightness and innocence. It still creates that idea, and that’s the feeling I wanted to be associated with the girls.

Bacon: What’s the intention behind calling the film Rafiki?

Kahiu: Rafiki means friend, singular. Often when you’re in a same-sex relationship and you have to introduce your partner, more often than not you have to say: “This is my friend.” Even when they’re so much more. They try to make it a non-loaded term.

Bacon: Which other African or queer filmmakers were you inspired by?

Kahiu: It was actually LGBT artists we were looking at. When we were creating the spaces for the girl’s rooms, we looked at the work of Mickalene Thomas. She’s an African-American artist who uses textures and colours in such a beautiful way. We also looked at the photography of a South American photographer named Zanele Muholi, whose work has been concentrated on photographing lesbians. They have such strength and such power in the way they hold themselves. Another artist we referenced was Wangechi Mutu. She is an extraordinary artist, and has such a gentle and ethereal way of capturing the spirit of a place.

As for filmmakers, they were not queer. I was interested in Marcel Camus. He made Black Orpheus in 1959. Just the joy and the life of the couple in love in that film really has always kind of drawn me in. I love it. A more recent, younger female director whose work I love is a French director by the name of Melanie Laurent. She made two films that really moved me. One was Respire (2014) and the other was Les Adoptés (2011). In both of them the love was so tangible and so close to the surface. I really wanted to represent that in the films that I made.

Bacon: How has your Cannes experience been?

Kahiu: It was such a beautiful experience. Being here has been so wonderful. We’ve been so embraced. This film has been embraced more than I could have ever imagined. It’s given me so much courage to think that if its being received well, and there’s so much love around [it], we can hold onto that courage and bring it back home.

We truly love our country. [This] is what is so basic. When you push back [against] a system, you can be labelled a dissident or be labelled an agitator, and its almost analogous with being unpatriotic. But I think the most patriotic thing we can do is say that every single Kenyan exists and has the right to be, and every single story has the right to be told and the right to be heard. We love the country and want to represent it to the best of our ability.

Much Ado About Cinema would like to thank Redmond for allowing us to share his interview with Wanuri on his behalf. You can find Redmond on twitter here. Wanuri Kahiu can be found on twitter here, and further information about her work is available on her website.

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