Directed by Wanuri Kahiu and written by Kahiu and Jena Cato Bass that is based on a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, Rafiki (Friend) is the story of two girls in Nairobi whose friendship grows into a romance amidst a period of political and family pressures as both of them are daughter of political rivals. The film explores a growing movement in the LGBT community in Kenya as two girls fall for each other despite the taboo that surrounds them. Starring Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva. Rafiki is a wondrous and heartfelt film from Wanuri Kahiu.
The film is the simple story of two young women in Nairobi who are the daughters of respective political opponents who fall in love with each other despite the fact that homosexuality is banned in Kenya. It’s a film with a simple premise yet it explores this attraction between two young women who are fascinated by one another despite the fact the fact that their fathers are running against each other. The film’s script by Wanuri Kahiu and Jena Cato Bass is straightforward as it’s more about this air of attraction in a world where homosexuality and lesbianism is still taboo in a country that is starting to be more in line with the rest of the modern world. At the center of this conflict is this political race between a convenience store owner and a seasoned political official as the former is eager to try and make some changes for his community. His daughter Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) is a tomboy that is helping her father though she still lives with her mother Mercy (Nini Wacera) who has separated from Kena’s father John Mwaura (Jimmy Gathu) who has re-married and is having a new baby.
Kena notices a young woman with colorful braids in Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) who is the daughter of Mwaura’s political opponent Peter Okemi (Dennis Musyoka) as she is always seen dancing with her friends as she and Kena glance at what another. Yet, they keep their relationship a secret that include from the eye of the gossiping Mama Atim (Muthoni Gathecha). The relationship build up starts off slowly as Ziki would even have Kena wear a dress at one point while the two also deal with the many ups and downs about this relationship.
Kahiu’s direction is largely straightforward in the compositions she creates as it is shot on location in Nairobi where it does play into this world that is colorful and vibrant. While there are wide shots in Kahiu’s direction to play into the locations and places the characters go to, much of her direction is emphasized more on medium shots and close-ups to play into the intimacy of the characters as well as some of the conversations. Notably in the way Kahiu showcase the two women glance at one another and this growing attraction though they try not to have anyone else notice though some do. Kahiu also maintains a low-key approach to the drama that also play into its third act where it goes into the taboo ideology of this relationship as some in Kena’s circle choose to remain quiet while others are appalled by what Kena and Ziki are doing as it relates to political and social issues. Yet, Kahiu does maintain some humanity as well as the religious pressures that Kena has to endure as it relates to the source of her parents’ split. Still, Kahiu does find some hope in the oppressive atmosphere that Kena and Ziki endure as the former also has a friend who is gay, which is something everyone knows, but refuses to hide it out of pride as it becomes a source of inspiration for the former despite the latter’s own resistance. Overall, Kahiu crafts a tender yet captivating film about two young woman who fall in love despite the social and political taboos in Kenya.
Cinematographer Christopher Wessels does brilliant work with the film’s colorful and lush cinematography as the colors help play into not just the beauty of the locations but also in the emotional anguish that Kena and Ziki endure that include some low-key lighting for some of the interior/exterior scenes at night. Editor Isabelle Dedieu, with additional edits from Ronelle Loots, does excellent work with the editing as it is straightforward with some jump-cuts and a few montage sequences that help play into the flourishing romance of the protagonists. Production designer Arya Lalloo does amazing work with some of the set design in the store that Kena’s father runs as well as a van where Kena and Ziki spend their time together as it help play into the colorful visuals of the film. Costume designer Wambui Thimba does fantastic work with the costumes from the tom-boy look of Kena to the more lady-like clothing of Ziki as both of them display vibrant colors in contrast to the more reserved and casual look of the people around them.
Hair stylist Carol Sunday and makeup artist Suki Kibunguri do terrific work with the look of the different hairstyles that Kena and Ziki both would sport as it play into their personalities as well as the look of the other women would have. Sound designer Noemi Hampel does superb work with the sound as it play into the way music sounds on location as well as the way gathering sounds such as church services. The film’s music soundtrack is wonderful as it feature a mixture of indie, folk, hip-hop, and traditional African music as it play into this vibrant culture the characters live in.
The casting by Nini Wacera is marvelous as it feature some notable small roles from Dennis Musyoka and Patricia Amira as Ziki’s parents with the former being a noted political official, Mellen Aura as Ziki’s friend Elizabeth who feels threatened by Kena’s presence, Charlie Karumi as the openly-gay Waireri, and Muthoni Gathecha as the gossiping Mama Atim who runs a shop across from Kena’s father’s store as she always look on with disdain and often looking to cause trouble. Neville Misati is fantastic as Kena’s friend Blacksta who knows about Kena’s feelings for Ziki but chooses to remain quiet while Nini Wacera is excellent as Kena’s mother Mercy who harbors a lot of resentment towards her ex-husband while is also religious as it adds to the conflict that Kena endures.
Jimmy Gathu is brilliant as Kena’s father John Mwaura as a convenience store owner who is running for office as a way to help his community as he deals with his ex-wife while being concerned for Kena as he would also see her with Ziki as he chooses to not say anything. Finally, there’s the duo of Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva in phenomenal roles in their respective roles as Kena and Ziki. Mugatsia’s performance is restrained in someone that is just trying to find herself while being a tomboy as she also deals with her attraction towards Ziki but is also eager to be more open about the relationship. Munyiva’s performance is more charismatic as someone that likes to dance with her friends as she is attracted to Kena as she helps Kena be more feminine while not being aware of the implications their relationship would have for her father as the two together are a joy to watch.
Rafiki is a phenomenal film from Wanuri Kahiu that features incredible performances from its lead actresses in Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva. Along with its colorful and vibrant cinematography, somber music soundtrack, supporting cast, and its compelling story set in a country where homosexuality is still considered taboo. It is a film that explores two young women in love amidst the social, religious, and political implications around them in a world that isn’t ready to embrace their lifestyle. In the end, Rafiki is a sensational film from Wanuri Kahiu.
© thevoid99 2021