CW: violence against women
This week’s film was the first from Kenya to feature at the Cannes Film Fest in 2018. I certainly hope not the last, but I can’t say I’ve noticed film festivals significantly diversifying since then. Because, in addition to #OscarsSoWhite, #FilmDirectorsSoWhite, #ProducersSoWhite, and #MediaSoWhiteEurocentric. It’s honestly at times a challenge to find films directed by women, let alone women of color to highlight on the Blog Collab. Can we please fund many more films created by women of color? Come on–we are currently slated to get more Transformers movies, but we can’t see even one more picture made by a Kenyan woman premiere at a film festival?*
*Though note that this film’s director, Wanuri Kahiu, is supposedly involved with an adaptation of Octavia Butler’s novel Wild Seed, and I could not be more excited.
Teen girls in Nairobi face rejection and disdain as they fall in love despite the rivalry between their families in a local election.
Just as tomboy Kena prepares to finish high school, her family implodes, making them the subject of unfavorable gossip and uncomfortable scrutiny. Following her parents’ divorce, Kena’s mother devotes her time to religion, while her father, John, remarries and is expecting a son with his wife. To further complicate matters, John lets gossip make its way to Kena rather than telling her anything directly. His reputation isn’t as stellar as it could be, especially considering John has decided to run against the incumbent in a local election.
Though Kena is usually content to chill with her small (and quite homophobic) group of guy friends, someone else has been catching her eye of late. The mysterious person in question is Ziki, the daughter of John’s political rival. Ziki seems different from Kena in every possible way: her colorful, feminine style, more affluent background, and comfort with being the center of attention. However, the two share an attraction and a rebellious dream of pursuing lives that are entirely their own.
Even as Kena and Ziki spend time together, they are under the watchful eye of town gossip Mama Atim, who owns the food kiosk Kena favors. As it becomes clear that the two will need to meet in secret, they carve out spaces that are hidden from anyone who may recognize them. Kena shares her dreams of being a nurse, though she has the grades to become a doctor; Ziki reveals that it’s her goal to travel as much as possible. While they don’t know what the future holds, they agree to make something real of it.
Despite all of the sneaking around at all hours of the night, gossip still makes its way to Kena’s dad, John. What’s more is the local pastor uses his sermons to rail against same-sex marriage. Ziki attempts to hold Kena’s hand during the service, causing their first fight. Though the two make up, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hide their feelings. After an angry mob, led by none other than Mama Atim, finds Kena and Ziki together, the couple faces a brutal attack. John seems to be the only parent willing to stand by his daughter, while Ziki’s parents are determined to send her away to London.
Among so much resistance from their families and community, can the love between Kena and Ziki stay alive?
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
This is a simple story beautifully told. The colors are vividly expressive, reflecting the sweet but intense romance between our two leads. I appreciate that Kena and Ziki have endearing personalities and aspirations outside of their relationship; one of the most frustrating patterns for me in a romance-driven plot is a bland character who is merely a canvas to project desires onto.
Actually, the characters as a whole are written with the nuance to seem real and for us to understand, even if we don’t always sympathize. Mama Atim, the town gossip, is extremely overbearing and frustrating, though there are elements of her character I quite like. In the end, she’s homophobic to the point of refusing treatment from Kena, now a doctor. However, at the same time, she inscrutably reveals to Kena when Ziki is back in town–and I’m not entirely sure how to interpret this. Could there be a grain of compassion in this action or is Mama Atim merely unable to resist gloating over a juicy piece of gossip?
Speaking of Mama Atim, who reflects a pattern of many of the women in our film, I do wish Kena had a single female ally. It’s incredibly touching to see John stand with his daughter at the risk of his political career. And there’s a beautiful moment between Kena and the gay character her friends constantly harass. Most of the women in our story lack the power and authority to stand with LGBTQ members of the community, instead keeping their heads down and maintaining the status quo. Ultimately, acceptance (or lack of acceptance) hinges largely on the reactions of Kena and Ziki’s fathers.
While quite a few heartbreaking and harrowing events unfold, it’s a relief that one of the film’s messages is hope. Director Wanuri Kahiu’s story mirrors the reality of homophobia and religious bigotry in the present yet imagines the possibility of open-mindedness and acceptance for the characters we grow to love in a short time.
2 thoughts on “Rafiki, or: Something Real”
This was such a lovely pick my angel. It did feel real and I want more from the director! I think to take something essentially so simple and craft it so well, rounding out the characters like she did takes some skill. I also never considered the final motives of the gossip, who was awful but a wonderful representation of the narrow-minded views held by the majority. I like to think you’re on to something more compassionate there but I’m not convinced… Wonderful stuff 💋
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I’m looking forward to seeing more by this director too!
I probably am giving too much credit to Mama Atim, but I thought most of the other characters had at least some nuance, and I was looking for it in her portrayal. But there were pretty awful views represented in the film, so it’s just as likely she really was that bigoted.
I want to see someone make an argument about this in film school.
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