Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) notices something different about Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) almost immediately. Maybe it’s the way she dances, the multi-coloured dreadlocks she wears, or the way she smiles; Kena is immediately transfixed. With a long summer ahead of her, and nervous about whether or not she gets the grades to become a nurse, she jumps at the opportunity to hang with Ziki when she is asked out. But this is Kenya — a country where you can still be jailed for engaging in same sex relationships — so they have to overcome both their feelings for each other and the prejudice embedded deep within the country’s conservative society.
Rafiki, which means friend in Swahili, is an apt title for the film. Many gay people introduce their partners to their parents as just a “friend,” without feeling able to tell them the truth about their relationship. Kena’s mother even takes a shining to Ziki, telling her that she’s a much better person to hang out with than her football buddy Blacksta (Neville Misati). (He is your typical heterosexual standby in a lesbian movie, promising her a safe lifestyle compared to the adventures found in same sex relationships.) Thankfully, Kena is not forced to make a decision between sexualities (as some lesbian movies are wont to do), but her relationship with Ziki is nonetheless put to the test by the intense pressures of a prejudiced country. How this relationship will develop in the real world forms the backbone of Rafiki, which sadly doesn’t do enough to turn this into the classic love story it deserves to be.
At this moment in time, it feels like an essential film. Firstly, it shows the world a side of Kenya — middle-class, hip, intellectual — that is rarely explored in cinema. Secondly, it shows Kenya a side of itself that it probably hasn’t seen before on the big screen. Yet, as a work of cinema in its own right, Rafiki still like a rough draft of a far more compelling film.
This is a shame, as the two main actors have the kind of natural charm that directors can only dream of casting. The whole movie can be found in the two girls loving one another; all it needed was more space to explore the nuances of the relationship. Coming in at a slim 82 minutes, the script hurtles towards clichéd situations instead of building natural conflict along the way. With two montages and an extended title sequence thrown in to boot, the short length wastes the skill of the two ebullient actors and their fantastic personalities. With the exception of Kena’s father (Jimmy Gathu), none of the supporting cast have much depth to them either, robbing us of the chance to watch a far more nuanced work of art.
When the struggles the two characters face reaches a boiling point, Rafiki turns into an archetypal take-your-date kind of movie — as in, if your date watches this film the whole way through and doesn’t shed a single tear, then you know that you’re wasting your time. But these struggles come too late, and are resolved with a pat ending that could be written on the back of a hallmark card. There is a great sweetness running through the core of Rafiki, making one root for these characters’ success throughout. This is why it feels all the more upsetting that the screenplay doesn’t create enough natural situations that stem from the characters themselves as opposed to their wider situation.
While Rafiki has already been banned in Kenya, it shows that the younger generation is embracing a new way of looking at things. A ban like this is only evidence that the authorities are scared that things will change. Rafiki is a great example that cinema has the potential to change people’s perceptions about the world. Sadly, this film won’t change anyone’s perceptions about cinematic technique in the process.