Rafiki: Love Blossoms in a Homophobic Context
Rafiki, meaning “friend” in Swahili, is a lesbian coming of age narrative by Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu. In English and Swahili, this film is a must-see at the Inside Out Film Festival. It plays on Saturday, November 10 at 7:15pm at the National Gallery of Canada.
The slow, beautiful and tender falling into love between Kena and Ziki has a universality about it that will evoke intensity and resonance for audiences across the world. Yet it is the specificity of its context that makes Rafiki unforgettable. From the moment their eyes lock in the streets of Nairobi to that dreadful evening when they are attacked by friends and neighbours, Kena and Ziki’s story is a reminder that we cannot take LGBTQ rights for granted. This film is particularly timely given the rise of openly homophobic right-wing populist governments across the globe, including Brazil’s newly elected president, Jair Bolsonaro. There has been a “validation” of hate crimes based on sexual orientation, explains one member of the LGBTQ population in Brazil.
And that’s precisely what Rafiki shows us: the slippage from friendship and benign neighbours to sudden and brutal violence. But make no mistake: hate crime is not a problem to be seen as “out there” in Kenya or Brazil, somewhere far away from us. The Canadian documentary Love, Scott follows Scott Jones, an openly gay musician and choir director, who was brutally attacked outside a club in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. Left paralyzed from the waist down by a man whom Scott believes purposefully targeted him because of his sexual orientation, the judge refused to deem it a hate crime nonetheless—a systemic problem in our country (Love, Scott plays the same day as Rafiki, at 4:45pm).
Although Rafiki speaks frankly about the culture of homophobia in Kenya—which explains why the film was banned from the country—it also offers glimmers of hope. Kena’s father, for example, embodies kindness, courage and hope for a better future when he yells back at his ex-wife, “Our daughter was hurt!” after he picks her up from jail the evening she was beaten up. The attackers should have been in jail, not his daughter and her girlfriend, he rightfully explains. By contrast, the other parents seem to prioritize their internalized homophobia and family image, so caught up are they in public appearances.
The cinematography and colour palette of the film echo the youthful and joyful potential of a queer-friendly Kenya. The Afropop style Kahiu marvellously develops is accented and intensified by a mind-blowing sound track: “Stay” by Njoki Karu and “I’m Feeling It” by Blinky Bill, Muthoni Drummer Queen and Mayonde are two personal favourites. This film is smart, urgent and beautiful—and if you’re going to the festival, you simply can’t miss it.
Rafiki plays Saturday November 10 at 7:15pm. The Inside Out Festival takes place November 9-12, with screenings at the National Gallery of Canada and other events around town. For all of Apt613’s coverage of the Inside Out festival, visit our Festival page here. Visit the Inside Out webpage for full schedule, trailers, and tickets.