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A lesbian film won’t make you gay

Rafiki made it into the Canne Festival but banned in Kenya

By Molly Jackson

Rafiki, meaning friend in Swahili, is the first ever Kenyan film to be featured at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. However, the Kenya Film Classification Board has recently decided to ban the film, on the grounds of portrayal of homosexuality between the two female lead characters. Telling the story of Kenyans in a creation by Kenyans, why has director Wanuri Kahui’s Rafiki been banned in its own country?

Rafiki’s ban is considered to be the result of Kenyan laws and culture in conjunction with homosexuality – of which this significant opposition is so rooted into Kenyan practice, as gay sexual intercourse can consequent in 14 years imprisonment.

The main cause for concern comes from the Kenya Film Classification Board surrounded the film’s conclusion, as the ending portrays an ethos of hope and optimism towards the legalisation of lesbianism, and in turn homosexuality in Kenya.

Unfortunately, this means there is perhaps an inferred denial concerning the existence of homosexuality, or even the realities of such a sexual inclination. LGBT+ sexualities are therefore outlawed and prohibited in both reality and consequently, art.

We know homosexuality had initially been criminalised in the Western world, and therefore becomes more difficult and disappointing to see a film banned on homosexual themes. In our Western society, homosexuality has been encouraged to be more of a norm, with conversations opening up concerning varied sexual identities.

Kenya therefore, has been denied these conversations and essentially become hindered.

Kahiu’s determined refusal to change the ending of Rafiki therefore, can be seen as a perfect example of utilising the medium of film in attempt to change our world for the better, to express ourselves and move forward.

Kahiu stated her aim with her film was to reflect the brutal and harsh realities of Kenyan society when faced with homosexuality, yet unfortunately this resulted in a denial for her of freedom of expression in which film is a great outlet.

Kahiu also said she wished to create loving films of Africa, with optimism and hope intertwined in plot lines, and never would wish to produce a story that opposes this wish. However, if a film that promotes optimism for a better future for Kenyan culture is banned, what does this mean for other filmmakers who aspire to achieve the same? And what does this mean for the film industry as a whole?

Kahiu stated that she felt the film “dealt with matters that are uncomfortable for the Kenya Film Classification Board” but surely, this ban would further provide hindrance to this understanding of such issues, particularly in Kenyan society and ability to move forward toward Western values.

Furthermore, one would think the with film being rated as age 18, the intended audience is mature enough to make their own decision and own discussion surrounding the themes portrayed. However, these potential conversations have been halted by the ban. Not only this, but it also damages the right and duty for Kahiu and her team, to tell the tales of a complicated and diverse society through film storytelling.

Rafiki is the first Kenyan film to be nominated for a Cannes Film Festival prize, potentially resulting in the improvement for the Kenyan film industry and raising standards for other Kenyan filmmakers to achieve. Kahui breaks away from the filmmaking norm that depicts Kenya as a state of poverty and corruption, and instead acknowledges other issues surrounding LGBT+ and young adulthood.

She essentially uses film as an artistic form of communication garnered towards Kenya’s audiences, yet with the ban in place, it manipulates and disrespects her filmmaking efforts, due to Kenyan audiences not receiving the ability to view her work.

Isn’t this a notion of disrespect by only allowing foreign countries to view the film too? Moreover, the film is based on the short story ‘Jambula Tree’, written by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko, from which the book’s success lead to the highly coveted Caine Prize for African Writing in 2007. So, is the portrayal of homosexuality only a problem when the audience can visibly observe it? Perhaps.

One would argue that the uncomfortability that occurs when confronted with homosexuality is a consequence of societal heteronormativity in Kenyan culture.

The Kenya Film Classification Board needs to utilise Rafiki to move forward and change these heteronormative societal norms in a positive way, instead of banning films depicting LGBT+ issues.

We are a Western culture that has become accustomed to both homosexuality and heteronormativity portrayed on screen – disapproving other cultures for not reaching our standards or expectations is easier said than done, however we should not forget these attitudes were imposed on Kenya during British colonial rule.

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