In April 2018, Wanuri Kahiu was in the final stages of preparing for the release of her new feature film, Rafiki, in her home country of Kenya. Based on Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story Jambula Tree, the film is a classic tale of two young friends whose relationship gradually blossoms into a love story. It also happens to be about two girls.
A few days later, Kahiu woke up to the news that the Kenya Film Classification Board had banned Rafiki on the grounds that it promotes lesbianism. Kahiu’s case was defeated largely because homosexuality is still illegal in Kenya, and the government has powers to control the making and exhibition of audio visual material such as films; both of which are laws that pre-date Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963.
“When Rafiki was banned we knew we had to push back, because the laws that banned the film are colonial laws,” says the Kahiu. While she was able to get the ban temporarily lifted for a week towards the end of last year so that it could be submitted for the Oscars, she is still battling to make this permanent.
What has happened with Rafiki is a stark reminder of the challenges of being a filmmaker in a politically conservative country like Kenya today compared to Europe, for instance, where Rafiki was the first Kenyan film to premiere at Cannes Film Festival, and received a standing ovation from the audience. Having grown up in Nairobi, Kahiu says she wasn’t even aware that being a filmmaker was a real job until her teens.
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