Cannes 2018: Kenyan Lesbian Drama 'Rafiki' is Sweet, But Too Cliche
by Alex Billington
May 9, 2018
One of the most anticipated premieres at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival is the first-ever film from Kenya to play in Cannes, titled Rafiki (which translates just to Friend in Swahili). Rafiki is the directorial debut of a Kenyan filmmaker named Wanuri Kahiu, and it tells a simple but sweet story of two young women who fall in love on the streets. The film is already banned in Kenya, because of deep-rooted cynicism about about same sex relationships, but that's why it's an important film. As much as I really wanted to love it, the story is nothing new and alas ultra cliche, but it's still a sweet story about falling in love and remaining in love even when everyone else rejects it, and the two leads are wonderful to watch. There is a genuine attraction.
Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki follows a young Kenyan woman named Kena, who falls for another woman named Ziki. The problem is, not just that this kind of relationship is sadly still taboo in Kenya, but that their fathers are both politicians running for the same position in office. This creates even more drama once their fathers find out, and also once they get caught by friends. Samantha Mugatsia plays Kena, and Sheila Munyiva plays Ziki, and the two are lovely together. Kena especially is someone I expect to see picking up more roles in more films after this. The story itself is full off all the typical gay first love tropes - the secrecy at first, eventually they get caught, everyone gets angry, they struggle over whether it's better to be together or not, parents aren't happy. I wish they mixed it up a bit, pushed it in new directions like Call Me By Your Name.
I certainly do recognize and appreciate how vital it is to still tell these kind of stories, especially in places where they don't yet appreciate the idea that love is love is love. And yet that's why it is a bit frustrating, because this has such a unique feel to it, in the music and style and setting. But it doesn't stand out beyond that, with a script that is a bit bland and derivative. It's a strong directorial debut, but definitely a first film that needs some work. However, I am looking forward to seeing Wanuri Kahiu evolve and make more films, as she's only going to get better and better. Rafiki has some very nice African touches, and a Kenyan attitude and flavor that I really enjoyed. The music she uses throughout really touched me the most, even though it was often on-the-nose about love, it still felt like the perfect music to add in each of these tender moments.
Even though Rafiki is far from perfect, it's still a good film I want to show friends and recommend to others. It's just not a great film. It runs a brisk 83 minutes and feels light, but still has strong emotional core and gratifying romantic heart. Some of the performances are a bit sketchy, perhaps something that Kahiu needs to work on in her next films, though I appreciate all they did making this and how important it is to Kenya. Rafiki deserves to be in the spotlight and deserves to be seen, and is only being criticized because it could be even better. In a world where we have films like Blue is the Warmest Color and Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight setting a high bar for queer cinema, it's challenging filmmakers to push themselves even further.
Alex's Cannes 2018 Rating: 7 out of 10
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