Rafiki review: Wanuri Kahiu directs this adaption of the 2007 short story about the love between two teenage girls in small-town Kenya.

Rafiki review by Paul Heath.

Rafiki review
Rafiki review

“I wish we could go to a place where we could feel real,” is the take-away line from this very impressive feature Rafiki, one getting its world premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival here in the south of France.

Wanuri Kahiu’s sophomoric effort, a feature which, in the lead up to the festival, was banned in its native Kenya, hooks you in from the outset, but it’s controversial treatment in its homeland dominated the chat in the queues as we waited to watch the film on day two of this year’s festival.

The reasons for the seemingly rather extreme step for a film primarily about love to be blacklisted in its native land, is due to the themes at the heart of the story – a lesbian romance between two teenage girls in a small African town – one which apparently ‘contravenes national laws and culture’ in Kenya, where gay sex remains illegal and remarkably still carries a sentence of up to 14 years in prison.

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The source of this film is the 2007 award-winning short story ‘Jambula Tree‘ by Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko, and centres on Kena (played superbly by Samantha Mugatsia), and attractive local girl Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). The girls become closer and a relationship forms early-on, but, in the confines of a community and a country filled with backward-thinking ways, one can only presume that this story won’t end well – no spoilers here – but your presumptions would be correct – but this very well-made feature takes a very different path and we very much remain involved and engaged throughout – and there are even some very warming surprises along the way.

As well as stirring up memories of Brokeback Mountain and the more recent Carol, a film which landed with such huge force here in Cannes, this very piquant story even manages to throw in echoes of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ – the two girls each having fathers who are on opposing sides – Ziki’s father leading the way for a seat as representative for the Member of County Assembly, and Kena’s own father running for the same role.

Rafiki review
Rafiki review

Running at a tight 82 minutes, Kahiu’s film wastes no time in setting up proceedings, and if there were initial fears that the narrative would take us on a well-trodden journey, those are dispelled as soon as the upbeat, multi-coloured introduction sequence plays out before your eyes. It is shot beautifully, and despite having the smallest of production budgets, is well-crafted and beautifully acted, most of all by its two leading ladies in Mugatsia and Munyiva). Both captivate and light up the screen portraying a believable romance; one which you urge to succeed despite your fears that is such difficult circumstances, probably won’t.

The film’s positive message is summed up with one truly excellent final shot – the one which reportedly contributed to getting the feature banned – and one which leaves you with such warm thoughts of the cinematic experience you’ve just witnessed, and not the absolutely ridiculous social and political circumstances going on in the ‘real world’ around the film. Which hey, let’s face it, has helped this deserved film catapult itself into an even bigger spotlight – one it so rightly deserves.

Rafiki review by Paul Heath, May 2018.

Rafiki is currently awaiting UK distribution.