REVIEW: I Am Samuel (LFF 2020)
There’s something quite beautiful about a documentary that doesn’t focus on a public figure or somebody deemed ‘extraordinary’, but instead follows a regular guy as filmed by one of his closest friends. In his moving documentary I Am Samuel, Kenyan writer/director Peter Murimi captures moments in the life of his friend, Samuel, a gay man living in Nairobi with his partner, Alex.
In Kenya, being gay can carry a 14-year prison sentence, and homophobic violence is rife. Samuel, who works as a construction worker and netball trainer, has a tight-knit group of friends in the city that he can be himself around, but he hides this part of his identity when he visits his conservative Christian parents in the western part of the country out of fear that they will reject him. Murimi follows Samuel over the course of five years as he goes back and forth between his two separate lives and hopes to find a way to unite them.
It’s fitting that there’s relatively little intervention from Murimi, whom we only hear from when he asks his subjects the occasional question while filming. He never appears in front of the camera, and he leaves all narration duties to Samuel himself. It gives the impression that he wants to take himself out of the equation and fully focus on his subject, letting him tell his own story with his own voice. The few questions he asks don’t even steer the narrative in a certain direction or seek to influence it; they simply help to paint a bigger picture of Samuel and his life.
Murimi doesn’t concern himself with any bells and whistles like impressive editing or effects; he’s just a man with a handheld camera capturing life as it is. His laissez-faire approach gives the documentary a very personal, home video-style feel to it, making it truly raw and real. The simplicity of it is mostly admirable, but the film undoubtedly would have benefitted from a bit more structure. It’s never made clear that it was filmed over five years, which is a shame because this makes Samuel’s story – and Murimi’s dedication to sharing it with the world – even more compelling.
Additionally, the fly-on-the-wall filmmaking doesn’t always make for the most entertaining and engaging viewing, such as in scenes where the director films Samuel’s parents going about their day. These quiet moments might be important to him on as personal level, but they’re not hugely interesting for the audience to watch.
Despite this, the rest of the documentary is fascinating. Murimi strikes a balance between highlighting Samuel and Alex’s personal struggles – as well as tough issues like homophobia and repressive patriarchal values – and showing moments of joy and hope. We see Samuel celebrate his 26th birthday in Nairobi, and we get to witness him exchange heartfelt vows with Alex in their apartment on their 1st anniversary, complete with a wedding cake-cutting and a party with their closest friends. It’s in these moments where we see Samuel come alive, and it’s heart-warming to watch.
The affection that Murimi has for his subject is palpable, and by the end of the film you’re left feeling like you know Samuel and really want the best for him. I Am Samuel is hard-hitting but ultimately hopeful, and this feeling is firmly cemented by the director’s final message that appears before the credits roll: “This film is dedicated to queer Africans,” it reads “may you all live in love and truth with your families.”
The LGBTQ experience in Kenya was also explored in Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki.