Director: Wanuri Kahiu Starring: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva Running Time: 82 minutes
One of 2018’s more underseen and personable films in a collection of new romantic comedies was Love Simon , a queer teen romance that managed to jog where other films had once walked, allowing itself to focus funly, freely and matter-of-factly on the romance of its gay lead in a setting where other obstacles where pointedly settled. Wanuri Kahiu’s story of queer African adolescence deserves plenty of props for following in that vein as much as it can, focusing on the falling stage of two young Kenyan girls’ romance in spite of and beyond the very real national context. Rafiki is a delicate but vibrant love story, a smile that can’t help breaking out.
Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Bass from a short story by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko, Rafiki is a story straightforward enough in its story beats but boosted by its presentation through a breezy running time. Tomboy Kena and bubbly Ziki spark a forbidden romance in “the Slopes”, just outside Nairobi. As their friendship’ all the more scandalous to the suspicious eyes that are on them from naysayers because their fathers are running against each other in local elections. Goal-oriented Kena plays cards, skateboards and kicks footballs around with her friends, quintessentially one of the boys, while the more spirited Ziki practices dance routines and styles her hair in gorgeous pastel braids. To the unobservant eye there’s no obvious connection between them, but the chemistry of leads Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva and Kahiu’s knowing direction leaves them utterly magnetic.
The closeknit presentation of the Slopes gives the impression that these two have seen each other around plenty of times, then all at once, they see each other, and nothing else is going to look quite the same ever again. Sat close to each other, the two can’t help but brush and glance; the film subtly introduces this electric importance of Kena and Ziki touching before making it explicitly important that contact does and does not happen. The bright personality that shines through from Mugatsia and Munyiva, and this physical element to their performances, elevates the slightly stock characters, who on script have a habit of stating their perspectives and goals out loud. This stands out all the more because the film is well capable of communicating visually – a cut from a lovestruck Kena to a shot of the Bible, which pans up to her sick, religious mother and Kena taking care of her, says more about the young girl’s world than any ham-fisted (if accurate) nay-saying sermon. The director shows consideration in creating the feeling of intimacy between her characters, dialogue might run out of sync with shots then jump back in, a little wonky in execution, but a nifty recreation of talking to someone you’re besotted with, getting lost in them.
In the promotion of international cinema, it’s worth a film festival’s while to look beyond the moody and European – the style on display here is a big point in the film’s favour, especially for a Young Adult story; it’s present, peppy, present. The colours pop, the music slaps, despite the barriers in place there’s plenty for the leads to smile about, especially each other. It’s all the easier to be invested in this romance because the world Kena and Ziki live in is worth living in if they can do it together. Kahiu is a leading light in the “Afrobubblegum” movement to flip the narrative of Africa on screen, something other than the Other, and Rafiki is a joyful shot that hits that target. Carefully but tentatively navigating potential tragic pitfalls in its back end, Rafiki nevertheless doesn’t ignore the potential trauma of its queer characters; especially since its background makes that impossible. The film had to fight off a ban in its home country to be screened, itself an effort to secure more eyes on it abroad, a circular but successful battle for the eyes Rafiki deserves to have on itself. Like her characters, Kahiu is willing to hold on and fight hard for what she wants, knowing how much more fun there is to be had with the shackles fully off.(3.5 / 5)