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By MAGUNGA WILLIAMS
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Finally Kenyans got to see the banned film Rafiki, following a court order to lift the ban temporarily to allow for seven days of screening in public theatres.

It is interesting to note, however, that long before its banning by the Kenya Film Classification Board, the board’s chief executive Ezekiel Mutua, had gone on radio to sing its praises and that of its producer, Wanuri Kahiu.

Mutua is on record saying, “It is a great story…she has a great story. We want it to be our movie, we want it to be our story…we need to celebrate Wanuri and her crew…”

But after the Cannes Film Festival, where the film was first screened to much acclaim, the film’s greatest supporter turned into its fiercest critic and the KFCB banned Rafiki “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.”

Kahiu sued the board, arguing in her suit that the ban made it impossible for her to submit the film for consideration by the Oscars Selection Committee Kenya for submission in the Best Foreign Language Film category award.

As soon as the court gave the order, Prestige Cinemas in Nairobi advertised dates and timings for screenings. In a matter of hours, tickets were sold out for the first day and the management was forced to show the film on both its screens, thanks to the hype created by the controversy around it.

The screening, from September 23-29, finally gave Kenyan viewers a chance to judge the film for themselves.

I attended the first day of screening at Prestige. I arrived half an hour before the start of the show and the place was buzzing with excitement. The queues for last minute ticket buyers were long. The tickets, selling at Ksh500 ($4.9), were cheaper than those charged for foreign-made films.

Members of the LGBTIQ community and their sympathisers had come out in full force to show support. Rafiki is after all about them.

Foreign-made films do not exactly grasp their challenges because in the West, homosexuality is neither illegal nor criminal. Rafiki is their opportunity not just to look at themselves in the mirror, but also to tell society about their daily struggles.

Rafiki is based on the lives of two girls, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). The daughters of rival politicians. They fall in love but their “unusual’’ relationship is not accepted by their community.

They have watched the violence that is meted out on other gay people and so they try to keep their relationship secret, without much success.

The more I think about this film, the more I am convinced that (ironically), there is nobody who has described it better than the person who hates it the most — KFCB’s Mutua.

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Speaking at the aforementioned radio interview, he said “…Rafiki is a story about the realities of our times and the challenges that our kids are facing, especially with their sexuality… things that we sweep under the carpet and pretend that it is not happening…”

As a heterosexual man with gay friends and one who is aware of the challenges they go through — both online and offline — I still cannot say that I know what it means to live as an LGBTIQ person in Kenya. This film sheds light on their daily tribulations.

The hatred is palpable— being denied access to basic human rights like healthcare, housing and the right to love. If there is an undoubted success in Rafiki, it is how it manages to humanise the experience of gays and lesbians.

The theme story is woven into a spellbinding tale that offers us a glimpse into a world unfamiliar to heterosexuals. Lasting only 82 minutes, I did not expect it to answer all questions on homosexuality.

However, the overriding lesbian theme is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it popularised the film but on the other, denied it the opportunity to be examined as purely a work of art.

The acting, costumes and soundtrack choices is stellar. The casting as perfect and the lead characters are brilliant in their roles as lesbian lovers.

That said, there are aspects of the film that did not work for me. The pace is way too slow. The dialogue in some parts sounds forced, maybe to appeal to a Western audience. And the subtitles are shoddily done.

The film has emotional moments between Kena and Ziki; carefree laughter from a bodaboda character called Blackstar and a food vendor who happens to be the neighbourhood gossip.

On a deeper layer, Rafiki explores the depths of parental love and heartbreak at the same time, when in a tender moment, a father chooses his daughter over winning an election, while a mother decides she loves her religion more than her daughter. But there is also unbelievable hate from a community that refuses to accept what they consider abnormal.

Rafiki is about everyday relations, and there is betrayal through the character of Waireri, who joins in a mob beating of someone he calls a friend.

But love conquers all as Kena and Ziki defy time and distance, and the threats hanging over them. And that is what I love about Rafiki — a bittersweet ending showing that there are things in life worth fighting for, at a whatever cost.

Rafiki is based on Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story Jambula Tree, which won the 2007 Caine Prize.

Here is a tip on how to watch Rafiki if you want to really grasp the story. First watch the video of the song Take Me To Church by Hozier, read the poem titled Some Kind of Man, and finally read Jambula Tree. Only then should you watch the movie.

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