Rafiki director Wanuri Kahiu comes from a line of strong, forward-thinking women. Her mother, a doctor, was one of the first female pediatricians in her region of Nairobi. Her mother-in-law is also a doctor and a CEO of a Kenyan hospital. While she didn’t pursue medicine, Kahiu fell in love with filmmaking at 16-years old when she entered an editing suite. At the time she didn’t fully realize that films were ‘made,’ much less thought of being able to make one herself. “When I entered that editing suite I fell in love, ” she says. “It aligned my two passions; which is being a tele addict and being a bookworm and anything that would allow me to maintain that space and call it a career was for me.” Soon after she went to Warwick University in London for a “proper degree” and then did her Master’s at the University of California Los Angeles in film. She is the founder of AFROBUBBLEGUM: a commitment to fun, fierce and frivolous African art.
Rafiki (which translates to ‘Friend’) is the story of two girls in a Nairobi housing estate (played by Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva) who try to find love in a hopeless place. Defying tradition, culture and their families, the two forge a relationship that will change their lives forever. The overwhelming story of the film has been that it was banned in Kahiu’s home country and worse; she is being harassed by the government. “The Kenya Film Classification Board has been issuing threats of arrest. Not to the actresses, the actresses are fine. That was the most important thing to me, keeping the actresses safe, that no one would come after them,” she said. “I saw them tweeting that I had broken the law because that’s how they communicate, with social media. It’s a concern; it feels like they’re trying to build a case to imprison me.”
But the reason might not be the one you expect. It’s not simply that Kahiu has created a film with lesbian content (although that is a part of it); it’s also about the script. “They’re saying we submitted a false script, which is not true. We submitted the final shooting script to the Kenya Film Classification Board but now they’re saying that we didn’t. They’re saying because of that they’ll come after the producer, which is me, and they’re threatening arrest,” says Kahiu. This is an especially pressing issue as there are currently two directors in exile or house arrest right now that have films in competition at the festival (Jafar Panahi with 3 Faces and Kirill Serebrennikov with Leto). “We feel that everything that is happening is a violation of the constitution that gives us the freedom of expression,” she says. “Our constitution is only 80 years old and I think we’re understanding the limitations and the edges [of the constitution].”
In digging into the look and sound of the film, the music was crucial. It’s 100% female (and all under 35) and Kahiu chose songs that would be what the girls would listen to. Even though the sound was mixed in Germany it was important that any adding sound comes from something that would be natural to Nairobi (“That bird is not Kenyan!”). The sounds of Nairobi are the score of the film. The look of the film, with its saturated colors and vibrancy represents a real element of Nairobi. “The colors were very significant. We were using the colors to tell the story. At times the colors were oppressive and almost claustrophobic and closing in on them. When it was just the girls together we pulled back; it was more pastels and there’s a sense of freedom and peace.”
Kahiu cites Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus and Melanie Laurent’s Respire among her inspirations and influences as a filmmaker. A huge sci-fi fan, and a Cannes Best Short Film winner for her 2009 film Pumzi, she’s a part of a new age of ‘Afrofuturism,’ a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science, and philosophy of history that explores the developing intersection of African/African Diaspora culture with technology. It’s an exploration largely missing from most African cinema. Recognizing that Black Panther has broken a barrier there she says “Now the rest of the world knows, we knew it, black-driven films can make money at the box office.”
Looking to have a shorter window between Rafiki and her next film, she is currently working on an adaptation of a short she wrote with Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor on a film about giant robots (“Similar to the ones seen in Kinshasa,” she says) and how “one falls in love with its human best friend, interrupting a system of AI that is attempting to take over Africa,” she revealed.
Rafiki played the Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section this week (and is eligible for the Queer Palm) but has yet to secure distribution.