' ' Cinema Romantico: Rafiki

Tuesday, October 29, 2019


Early in “Rafiki” teenage Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) joins a few male friends to play cards in a Nairobi public space. The air is convivial. Suddenly, though, when a young man, Tom (Vitalis Waweru ), passes by, one of Kena’s ostensible friends stands up and bullies him. He bullies him, we quickly learn, because Tom is the town pariah, rejected by this closed off society because of his sexual orientation. It’s a moment designed to shift our assumptions about these people into whose company we’ve just been plunged and “Rafiki”, then, which follows the star-crossed, same-sex romance of Kena and fellow teenage girl, Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), becomes about shifting the assumptions of Kenya itself, a place which has struggled in LGBTQ acceptance. Whether it took, I cannot say, though Kenya banned the film which might be all we need to know. And if “Rafiki” feebly refrains from explicit images in love scenes while suffering from an abundance of featherweight montages to demonstrate their burgeoning connection rather than letting us hear what they have to say, it’s hard not to think director Wanuri Kahiu was threading the needle for censors. In that light, it’s impressive what she manages to sneak through.

This alternating desire to confront the truth head on and the necessity of dancing around it is evoked in Kena and Ziki’s first looks. The latter stares straight back, as if challenging Kena to make eye contact, which she only partly does, keeping her head down even as she tilts her eyes up, embodying the risk of just one look. It is fear stemming not just from the surrounding gossip mongers, who seem to live lives merely to judge the lives of others, but from her friends too, like Blacksta (Neville Misati), whose friendliness does not so much mask the society’s retrograde values as demonstrate their deep, immovable roots. You see these roots in Kena’s mother, Mercy (Nini Wacera), whose divorce from Kena’s father, John (Jimmy Gathu), is presented not as won freedom but a cross to bear. Later, when Kena’s secret relationship emerges, her father offers emotional support, insisting such support in the name of love is just that simple, a simple position for a man at the top of the patriarchal chain to take. Mercy knows it is not that simple and says as much.

Ziki’s world, on the other hand, is less filled out. Her parents are wealthy and strict, though Munyiva’s performance comes across less about pushing back against her parents than just a kind of broad free-spiritedness, and the character comes across less an agent of her own change than an agent for Kena’s change, pushing her not to be a nurse but a doctor instead. It makes sense since we tend to see Ziki more through Kena’s eyes but given the film’s otherwise blessedly short run time it’s hard not to wish we could have seen more of Ziki looking back. Her father (Dennis Musyoka), meanwhile, is running for the same political office as Kena’s father, which is what renders the girls’ romantic relationship as star-crossed, ostensibly providing a dramatic hurdle, though Kahiu never sees this inherent drama through, hardly even focusing on the political race, what it entails or why these two men seek office in the first place. Then again, in several church-set scenes, where all the characters congregate, it becomes clear in the Priest’s words that God’s law comes before the government.

That brings me to the photography. “Rafiki” is frequently bathed in pastels, purples and pinks and shades in-between, which Kahiu told Much Ado About Cinema was meant to elicit a “feminine perspective.” It does, but first it’s crucial to note the starkest purple is seen in the purple robes the Priest wears and that adorns the religious banners directly behind him. These, then, deliberately play off not only the pink braids that Ziki sports in church, and everywhere else, but the more lyrical hues infusing cinematographer Christopher Wessels’s frames. In a scene at a dance club, Kena and Ziki pop off the screen in neon against the black lit backdrop, and the morning after, when they say goodbye, the color of their clothes blends so breathlessly with the sunrise’s vivid violent that, for a second, you’d swear the natural world was staking claim to their side.

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