Queerness in Kenya is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Enter “Rafiki,” a forbidden love story between two Kenyan teenage girls, directed by filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu. The first Kenyan film to play at the Cannes Film Festival and banned in Kenya due to its content matter, “Rafiki” had a lot of buzz in the festival circuit. While the story is politically important and the romance uplifting, the actual film lacks nuance regarding Kenyan culture and the human psyche.
Based on a short story written by Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko, “Rafiki” means friend in Swahili and is also considered a queer term in Kenya. Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva star as the daughters of two opposing political candidates with an undeniable attraction. When the pair fall in love, they have to decide between family and each other. The Romeo and Juliet concept is emphasized by the competitive, bigoted community in which the girls live.
Although the plot of the film is fascinating due to homophobic Kenyan policies, it plays out in a predictable fashion. The leads try their best with an uninspired script that shows instead of tells, making the chemistry between them the highlight of the film. All of the characters are disappointingly one-dimensional, with both girls barely fleshed out and the majority of the community depicted as stereotypical villains. Blacksta, Mugatsia’s best friend with a secret crush on her, is the archetype for entitled cisgender male. When Mugatsia and Munyiva are beat up by men in the community, Blacksta does nothing.
The color palate and setting, however, vibrantly pops in every scene. From Munyiva’s rainbow hair to the pastel buildings, Kahiu clearly has an eye for color. Sadly, the aesthetics are stunted by choppy editing and camera work that often focuses incorrectly. But the closeups that do succeed create an emotional pull that solidifies the girls' bond.
Unfortunately “Rafiki” falls to the clenched pitfalls of the forbidden love genre, lacking screenwriting and technical skill to surpass the ordinary. While the queer, Kenyan concept provides a fresh point of view, the film fails to live up to expectations.