February 23 2020
‘Strong women in my life believed in pursuit of happiness,’ says Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu
30 June 2018

Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu on the genre called Afrobubblegum, the warm reception her film Rafiki received at Cannes and being liberal

Irony couldn’t have got starker. The first Kenyan film to ever compete at Cannes Film Festival, 2018 Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki (Friend), has been banned at home for its portrayal of a lesbian relationship and for “normalising homosexuality”. However, Kahiu and her leading ladies, Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, got a long standing ovation at the film’s premiere in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes.

Based on Jambula Tree an award-winning short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko Rafiki is about two young girls—Kena and Ziki—living in a Nairobi housing estate. They want a future that is about something more than becoming good wives to suitable boys and building families. They eventually end up finding understanding, support and love in each other.

With June marking the Pride Month for the LGBTQIA+ community we rewind a small roundtable with Kahiu at the audio-visual terrace in Palais des Festivals et des Congres which started off with her talking about Kenya Film Classification Board issuing her threats of arrest, the history of Kenyan artistes in exile and the freedom of expression ensured in the country’s eight-year-old Constitution and then went on to talk about everything under the sun—from her speech as a cultural leader at the World Economic Forum at Davos to the four hours that went in braiding her hair. The writer-author-filmmaker talks about her personal life, the film, its music, colours, the feminine lens with which it looks at society, gender and homosexuality and a lot else.

Considering the film is so liberal, do I assume that you also come from as liberal a background?

I came into films when I was about 16. I wanted to become a filmmaker the minute I walked into an edit suite. It was like falling in love. Before that I hadn’t even assumed or begun to imagine that people make films. For some reason it hadn’t occurred to me at all. Films combined my two passions—I am a tele-addict and a book worm. I did an undergraduate degree [at Warwick University] because my parents didn’t think of films as a career and then I did my Masters in UCLA in film school.

Do I come from a liberal background? My aunt is an actress which is quite liberal. My mother has been a huge influence in my life. She is a doctor and when she was coming up, she was one of the few female paediatricians. She had to push boundaries and now my mother-in-law is the same. She is also a doctor but also the CEO of a hospital in Kenya. As women they are very positive and forward-thinking and impressive in their approach. Even as liberal as they are, they live within the setting of a conservative society where roles are ascribed and ideas about how you should be as a wife, a daughter are pre-defined. That’s changing now. Our generation and the younger are beginning to push harder and be more liberal. We have lot more access to information.

The fact is that I had women in my life who were strong, who believed in the pursuit of happiness. You need to do what you need to do to be happy. My mother was a doctor because that was her happiness. Your well being is what needs to be protected the most.

Tell us about the music in the film—its significance and the influences...

We wanted to make the soundtrack 100% female. The sound, the voices and the music had to be the one the girls would listen to. So we first created a soundtrack that was strongly female-centric. All of the women in the soundtrack are under the age of 35. All of it is very modern music that we are currently making. Almost all of the women are Kenyan. We also wanted to make sure in the treatment of the sound in the film, that the only sound should be the sound of Nairobi. Kenya is so full of sounds. Even the birds, we needed to be sure that they were from the region because we were mixing in Germany. We wanted to make the sound of Kenya the score of the film. It is very specific to the girls and to the story.

One of the things about the film is how active, vibrant and colourful it is while we have been used to seeing dour images from Africa. This seems like a new chapter in African cinema…

We are part of a genre that we call Afrobubblegum. It is a celebration of fun, fierce and frivolous African art. It also means that the work we create has to have joy and hope at the centre of it. Colours were very significant; we were using the colours to tell the story as well. Nairobi is overpoweringly colourful sometime. We wanted to make that into something that makes the girls feel claustrophobic, watched; it intrudes on them; there is a sense of being crowded in on. But when they are together, we pulled back. It is more pastel and light. There is a sense of freedom and peace. We also wanted to give it a very feminine lens. We wanted to introduce Nairobi in the film through the perspective of young women. Given that we are [living in] such [an] Instagram culture of filters we wanted to reference that in the film.

What has been the response of women to the film as opposed to the men or the Kenyan Film Classification Board?

What gets me is the patriarchy of the system. This film is so feminine, light and joyous. That femininity is the threat. The idea that we are here, celebrating our space and celebrating being young, African women is a challenge to many, many men. I think the intimidation has been because I am a woman. But there has been an overwhelming Kenyan support. We are so grateful for it. I am not alone. The day after the film screened [at the festival] we were on the front page of the national newspaper.

Have you been influenced by any particular filmmakers?

It varies. For this film we looked at Marcel Camus who made Black Orpheus. The joy and vibrancy of it was very influential. He had a beautiful, gorgeous shooting style. There is a female French director Melanie Laurent. Her ability to tell stories of love was so tangible, so close to the surface that you actually felt you were in the room with the people.

You have also been working on Afro Futurism…

A lot of the work I am writing is science fiction. Next film I want to make is an adaptation of Rusties, a short story I wrote together with Nnedi Okorafor. It is set in futuristic Nairobi. There are giant robots similar to ones you see in Kinshasa in Congo. One robot falls in love with its human best friend and interrupts the system of AI (Artifical Intelligence) trying to take over Africa.

Will this film be completely removed then from the intersectionality of feminism, femininity and sexuality that we see in Rafiki?

There will never be a time that I will not explore femininity. That’s who I am. That will always be the lens and perspective.



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