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 the 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.
“There were no representations of [the arts] where I was from. My mother’s a doctor, my husband now is a doctor, I was surrounded by doctors, so I was more likely to go into medicine than anything else, because that is what I had been exposed to. I went to a TV station when I was 16 and saw them making film and TV. I was like ‘Oh, people do that. I want to do that’,” Kahiu adds.
Since becoming a filmmaker full-time, Kahiu’s work has explored a sprawling range of different subjects. Her first feature film, From a Whisper, was based on the real events surrounding the 1998 twin bombings of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, while the afrofuturism-inspired Pumzi premiered at Sundance film festival and went on to win best short film at Cannes Independent Film Festival.
When deciding which projects to take on, the filmmaker always starts by asking herself whether she is drawn to a story or not. “For me my style is not only making one type of thing … it’s the conversation that I want to bring to the table,” she says. “I’ll work with people who have different visual styles, and [those] styles are needed to tell different stories, but what is unique to me is the questions that I’m trying to answer through my films, and my questions inevitably revolve around belonging, hope and joy.”
While Kahiu’s latest film Rafiki has caused a lot of political controversy in Kenya, she says her main aim when she set out to make it was to tell an age old love story to African audiences. “It wasn’t until my late teens that I saw Africans in love on a cinema screen. Even now when you look at African films, we don’t have many love stories. We have many war stories, but the playfulness of falling in love is not a story that is told in Africa often, and it’s incredibly important to tell [these kinds of stories].”
Afrobubblegum, the aptly named art collective which Kahiu co-founded, was born out of the same frustrations with the ‘single’ African story. So far, the work that has come out of the initiative has ranged from an animation about a Nairobi pop band that wants to go to space, to an illustrated book about a seven-feet tall robot who falls in love.
Kahiu urges other African artists to have the courage to tell stories that are in keeping with Afrobubblegum’s mantra: fun, fierce and frivolous. “We want to commission, curate and create work that is nothing to do with creating an agenda or saving war victims. That work is being done, and it’s important that it’s being done, but we also need a space for imagination based stories.”