Jack Hobson reviews Rafiki, showing in our cinema until Wednesday 10 July.
It is undeniably difficult to not be drawn into the concept of Wanuri Kahiu’s most recent directoral work – a defiant lesbian romance film, initially banned within its home country of Kenya, only lifted when Kahiu fought back. Rafiki promises much and delivers much more.
The city of Nairobi is drenched in colour and activity, an almost too perfect setting for the queer Romeo and Juliet story to unfurl. The cinematography, clearly being vital in telling their tender love, guides the protagonists (Kena and Ziki) in a dance through days of vibrant palettes and patterns. The film is not only stirring the heart but fascinating the audience’s eyes in moving scenes. In this the director’s interest in afrofuturism (Kahiu being the co-founder of the movement Afrobubblegum) is presented as Nairobi is drawn as a fantastical world with characters full of vibrant hope, rising above the pessimistic perception of Africa often portrayed by the west.
Kahiu has no problem however in reminding the audience of the very real implications of same-sex desires in a bigoted society as the narrative is plunged into darkness and violence. These scenes, in direct opposition to the cheerfulness they follow, are shocking and uncomfortable. In this sudden transition a dichotomy between reality and fantasy arises; a dichotomy that mirrors the complications of taboo love as Kena and Ziki desire for themselves to become real and escape from the fairy tale falseness of their secret excursions.
Although it is easy to be engrossed in the story of Kena and Ziki, many other relationship dynamics overspill into the plot of Rafiki. Parents struggle to find happiness for their children, friendships hang by threads and individuals search for their places in the community. These interwoven relationships portray the difficulties of all human love and, as stated in an interview with Kahiu, the strength of deciding a “difficult love”. In doing this the film becomes universally meaningful to an audience within the LGBT+ community or otherwise.
Ultimately Rafiki portrays the harsh realities of relationships, however in doing so also promotes a message of hope for those facing conflict in their lives, offering encouragement and inspiration from strong characters with even stronger foes.