Banned in her home country of Kenya, Wanuri Kahiu has struggled for years to get her lesbian romance Rafiki off the ground. After being successful on the festival circuit, the film is finally getting a limited release in the UK and US. It was the first Kenyan film to be selected for Cannes – in its Un Certain Regard section. I spoke with Wanuri about the hopeful Afrobubblegum feel of the film and the political and religious landscape which is woven into the story.
It took you a long time to find the financing and get the film made, did the story go through any changes during that time?
Well we were making the film for seven years so it went through seven years of changes. One of the things that we did was that initially we thought we would shoot outside of Nairobi but when the budget became tight, we decided to move the film to Nairobi and then change the script to suit the location. So, yes, it went through quite a few changes as we wrote it.
What was the casting and rehearsal process like with the two main girls?
We didn’t have that much time for rehearsals but we had an amazing acting coach who came in all the way from Amsterdam to help us with the roles and so we managed to get a lot more work done than we would normally have, because when I was working with other actors, she was also helping the young women prepare for their roles. We did an open call for casting and then we had different people come in and read for the roles and one of the people who came in to read for the roles was Sheila, who played Ziki and she was fantastic. But Samantha, who plays Kena, we found her – well, I spotted her at a party and she just looked like she was exactly the right person for the film and then we asked her to come in for an audition and then it worked out perfectly.
I loved the music, especially in the opening titles – was that a found piece or did you collaborate with somebody on that?
Well, the music was donated. A very good friend of mine called Muthoni Drummer Queen did a lot of the music on the soundtrack and she was just about to release her album when I was making the film. She said, very very generously that we could use any of the music on the album as part of the film. So I just went through her album and it was amazing because it was exactly the type of music that I had imagined for the film. So we were able to use her work quite easily and it spoke to the Nairobi that we wanted to speak about and that was also incredibly helpful. So it wasn’t as difficult as you would imagine and it wasn’t “found” – it just seemed like the right time and the right place.
The artwork is also beautiful in the opening titles – the illustrations which go around the images of the actors – can you tell me about that process?
That artwork was created by a wonderful artist called Jebet Naava – she is just fabulous and we asked her to create those particular pieces for the opening sequence and I had always imagined that her work would be what the opening sequence would be. And then when it came around to it, we asked and she said yes! It was a wonderful collaboration and she, like the people who are on the soundtrack are all young women, below the age of 35. The soundtrack was created by young women and the artwork at the beginning was created by young women and all of it felt like it fed into this idea of a hopeful, vibrant, joyful Kenya.
Talking of that vibrancy, the use of colour is striking throughout, particularly in the costuming and obviously in Ziki’s hair. Why did you want to make it such a bright and colourful piece?
Well I live in a bright and colourful place, first and foremost. Nairobi is incredibly vibrant and colourful and the neighbourhood we were shooting in was incredibly vibrant and colourful. So we wanted to make colour part of the language, firstly because we couldn’t avoid it, but we wanted to very much make it part of the language of the film. When the girls were out and about, the colour was used as part of the noise and the suffocation of the world that they were in. Then when they were together, we pulled down the colour, so it felt a little gentler and more subtle – that contributed to the peace and quiet that we tried to surround the girls with.
Could you tell me a bit about Afrobubblegum and how that feeds into it?
Afrobubblegum is fun, fierce and frivolous African art so it very much feeds into that because at the heart of the film is joy and hope, which is very much the ethos of Afrobubblegum. As well as the music and the art, like you said, in the opening sequence, all contribute towards this Afrobubblegum feel that we were so keen on creating and being part of. But more than anything, it’s the joy in the film that really makes the film Afrobubblegum and it’s the joy that we want to continue to communicate about the place that we live.
You went for a kind of Romeo & Juliet feel, with the two rival families – the fathers of both girls are political rivals – was that something that was in the original short story?
No, they weren’t but through the film, we were asking the question, which is put by Lucille Clifton which is “what would you travel towards more than your own safety?” and as we did that, we had to ask the question about what would the fathers travel towards more than their own safety? Would they travel towards their relationship with their daughters? Or would they travel towards their relationship with their careers, which is more safe? And we wanted to answer that question so it really became a question of what would you choose, if you had the ideal job and one chose their daughter and one didn’t.
Both politics and religion are quite major themes of the story, is there a reason you wanted to interweave those so much?
Well religion plays such a huge part, especially being in the LGBT community and shunning the LGBT community in Kenya, so it was hard not to talk about it, in that sense. But politics was really so we could have the conversation of the fathers and their relationship with their daughters. Because being a politician is so coveted, so if you have that role what would you do, if you had the choice to choose otherwise?
Based on the short story ‘Jambula Tree’, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) is a teenage tomboy living with her mother in Nairobi – she skateboards and plays football with the boys, particularly the popular Blacksta (Neville Misati). Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) is more traditionally ‘girly’, making up dance routines with her friends and standing out with her bubblegum pink hair. Kena works for her father in a corner shop, at the centre of the community and he is also running for political office. She finds out at the start of the film that he is expecting a baby with his new partner. Ziki’s parents are traditional and religious and her father is also running for office, opposing Kena’s father. Kena has ambitions to be a nurse, but her exam results are so good, it means she can train as a doctor. Kena and Ziki begin a secret romance and when it is discovered, firstly by Ziki’s friends and then by the town gossip, there are violent consequences.
The most striking thing about this film is definitely the use of colour – the costume and production design, combined with the locations are bright and vibrant. It is reminiscent of the TV series The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (set in Botswana), which came out ten years ago, with the involvement of Richard Curtis. It also happens to be Anthony Minghella’s last directing credit before he died and is highly recommended. The soundtrack of Rafiki is also fantastic, particularly during the stunning opening sequence. Ziki has a safe haven – a little camper van which she uses to escape her strict parents – here the colour palette is more muted and the lighting softer. This is the setting for the love scene, which ingeniously cuts between Ziki unwrapping a cupcake and the sex. There is an eye-popping scene in a nightclub which uses neon paint and strobe lighting to ingenious effect.
The acting is incredible, from two young and inexperienced actors. This is Samantha Mugatsia’s first role and she is in almost every scene – she is very much the protagonist and has to command the screen for the entire film. Neville Misati is also particularly compelling as the enigmatic Blacksta. Kena’s relationship with her parents is complex and explored in depth. Kena is caring and protective of her mother, despite her bitterness. Her father goes on a journey from the start to the end, in terms of his priorities and his relationship with his daughter. Ziki’s parents very much represent the traditional face of Kenya, whilst Kena and Ziki represent the optimistic and progressive youth. Rafiki reveals a side to Africa not often seen in movies, which tend to focus on the history and tragedy of the continent.
Rafiki is an important film, focusing on a hopeful and romantic love story between two young women in Kenya. The fact that its been banned in Kenya is exactly why it is important and why it needs to be seen by as many people as possible outside of that country, to give real people in their situation a voice. It highlights how much religion still dominates the political situation there. However, it also demonstrates the vibrancy and joy of the youth in overcoming an oppressive society. And Wanuri Kahiu has shown this through a jubilant explosion of colour and music – this film feels like a celebration and a triumph over adversity. A must-see.