AiW Guests: Ben Apea, Aysha Taylor & Molly West
Wanuri Kahiu is a Kenyan author, film director and producer, who has been making films since 2009. Her films From a Whisper, Pumzi, For Our Land and Rafiki engage with a wide range of themes including terrorism, Afrofuturism and joyful love stories.
Her film Rafiki premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, receiving widespread critical acclaim, attention and awards. Centring around two young Kenyan women from rivalling political families who fall in love, the film was banned by the Kenyan Film Classification Board, due to its’ ‘optimistic’ outlook on same-sex relationships.
We had the fantastic opportunity to speak with Wanuri about Rafiki, its reception and controversies, AfroBubbleGum (her collective of ‘fierce, fun and frivolous’ African art) and her thoughts on the very concept of an ‘African Cinema’.
AiW: Given the recent movements towards a new vote on LGBTQ rights in Kenya, we are interested in why you chose to focus your film Rafiki on two women who fall in love in the midst of two political campaigns? Do you think that the film has impacted on the call for a ruling?
Wanuri Kahiu: Truthfully, my aim was not to make a LGBTQ story. I just wanted to tell a love story. When I started reading all the short stories I wanted to adapt, the most beautiful one I found was Monica Arac de Nyeko’s ‘Jambula Tree’, which I adapted the film from. I wasn’t going for a story with any overtly political themes ̶ it just ended being that! It seemed like a natural fit.
Even my film Story of Our Lives which was based on the perspective of the LGBTQ community in Kenya ̶ it’s just simply people simply living and falling in love, like we all do. Love chooses us, we don’t choose it necessarily.
Can you please walk us through the banning of Rafiki, what has been done to revoke the ban, and what is happening now?
The ban came about because I refused to change the ending of the film. The Kenyan Film Classification Board wanted the ending of the film to be more remorseful and I refused to let it be more remorseful. And so they banned the film. And then we went to court to ask the ban to be lifted for seven days so it could qualify as an Oscar nominee – it was lifted for seven days, and then re-imposed.
It was all part of the case for freedom of expression. The government or the classification board had been saying that the film had been promoting ‘gayism’ – whatever that means! And so we could call a witness and ask them if their sexuality had changed after watching the film because that’s what the other side was arguing. They were arguing that it was encouraging and spreading homosexuality.
We also wanted to prove the case that by banning the film the industry is not able to thrive financially because it is not able to make the money it would make. Given how long it had been out and the kind of money it had made, what if that had been supported by a normal run? So many people saw the film in the week it was open; that gave us a lot of evidence, and was the first win in what we hope will be a successful battle in the long run.
And now onto the film itself, one thing that stood out is the extraordinary use of colour throughout. How did you approach colour grading in the film?
We worked mainly with primary colours when the girls were apart from each other.
In terms of the location we were shooting in, Nairobi was full of bright, primary colours. Even just the way people dress: colour is important in Kenyan culture. Pastel pinks were used when the girls were alone. When they were not alone, the primary colours portrayed the differences between their world and the real Kenyan world and how hard it can be to navigate the two. I also used colour to highlight noise, the claustrophobia that is created around the girls when they are not together.
What was the casting process like? What exactly drew you to Sheila Munyiva and Samantha Mugatsia, your two amazing leads?
Casting is more instinctual than anything really because I often work on this side of the world, where you don’t necessarily have many professional actresses and actors. When I was saw Sam, I knew she was the person I wanted to cast. I didn’t know if she was interested or even if she had previous experiences. I just knew she had the right look and feel for the film. It turns out she had never acted a day in her life but when she came in for the auditions it was incredible because she had such presence. She was naturally capable of depicting the character that I needed for the film. She was easy to cast.
Then Sheila, who plays Ziki, she’s had some television experience which helped but the reason why I casted her was because she was so playful and gentle in character in contrast to Sam, who was quite quiet and reserved. I liked that idea.
How have people reacted to the film? Do you feel that its joyfulness has been appreciated?
The people who I intended to watch the film, especially the queer community in Kenya, really responded well to the film. But also a lot of heteronormative people really responded to the film and were able to understand that love is love. They were taken in by the film and they weren’t shut out by the idea that two young women can be in love.
There were people who came out of that theatre who felt the privilege that they had of falling in love with someone of the opposite sex. Because it is a privilege. And they were able to see their privilege for the first time after watching the film and that was a great thing. And then the queer community really did respond to the joy and hope in the film, and some were even able to use it as a tool to help kick start the process of coming out to their own parents, or their own friends or their own communities. So yes, it was seen as hopeful and joyful to a lot of people.
Let’s say someone watches the film, perhaps part of the LGBTQ community, or perhaps not, and they are inspired by it. What can they do to continue the film’s message?
It is not the reason I make films. I make films because I am inspired by a story, and then if they have a life past that, it is exciting. The thing about banning queer content in Kenya or places like Kenya is you deny the voices and existence of people. You say to them: ‘You do not exist.’, ‘You do not have rights.’, ‘You do not speak.’ The moment you take away someone’s voice and their representation they are not seen.
At the very least the film should hopefully start a conversation about inclusion, how we include people in our society even if we don’t understand them, or how they live, or what choices they make. We have at least the right to respect every single person whether or not we understand them. Perhaps, that could be the only hope I could impose on the film. But past that I really just wanted to tell a love story so I could see more people that looked like me in love. Because that was something that I hadn’t seen growing up, I just didn’t see Africans falling in love on screen and it was incredibly important to me that I did that, that I put an image of that into the world.
Aside from Rafiki, we were fascinated by your film Pumzi. It is a short, science fiction film, which involves fantastical elements but is also grounded in the very real, geopolitical issue of water shortages. Can you talk about why you chose to walk the line between these two things?
Pumzi started as the result of something that really ticks me off, which is bottled water. It takes more water to make the bottles than the water that is in the bottles, which is a really annoying thing! Every day we use bottled water, we throw out more water than is in the bottle ̶ to me it makes absolutely no sense. I started to think about what it would be like if you had to buy fresh air. I started to ask myself, what kind of world would that be? And from there I started to create the world of Pumzi.
I knew that there was someone who was always questioning things, even though she didn’t know she was questioning. Even when Asha took her dream suppressants she still had dreams. So she was this person who somehow had the ability to hope and was connected. And I really feel that her connection was to do with the fact that she worked around natural things, even though they were in a museum. So, she had the ability to dream because of her proximity to nature.
From there it was just exploring the themes of being the mothers of mother nature. What is our responsibility to the environment? What sacrifice are we comfortable making for the environment?
Despite being a very epic narrative, in Pumzi it is small acts of kindness that galvanize the action. Could you talk a little about the importance, and presence, of kindness and community in your films?
Well, I think there’s different levels of community. In the film we see that when you are punished, you are made a self-power generator. There is definitely a hierarchy present within the world of Pumzi, and within that hierarchy there isn’t an allowance of kindness. You do your thing, you do your part, and that is all you are meant to do – you aren’t meant to look out for others. But by breaking rules there was a chance to change society and to allow for things. Kindness was breaking that rule. I feel like I was trying to champion rebels and change-makers in societies because I feel like that is where we get our breaths of fresh air.
When we are pushed towards doing something which we can’t explain except for our conscience telling us it’s the right thing to do, and we aren’t doing it for fame, it’s simply an altruistic drive within us. I feel like those kinds of rebels are the most exciting ones for me throughout history, and have always been. So Asha being driven by this want to just rescue this plant, even though she knew it would be a difficult task, was exciting to me. My hero growing up was a woman called Wangari Maathai, and she won the Nobel Prize for planting trees. She was a radical character because the act of planting trees meant that she went up against then-dictator, President Moi, who was stealing public land for his own private use. She started land politics by the simple act of planting trees and she wouldn’t back down. That spirit has been galvanizing for me and I wanted to honour it in the film.
What ignited your interest in starting your own collective, in the form of AfroBubbleGum?
I wasn’t even trying to create a collective. I think it just kind of happened! This idea of creating a space for us to be fun, fierce and frivolous as African artists just sprouted, and the moment it started other people just seemed to completely understand it and it continued to grow like that.
I started to look for what I defined as AfroBubbleGum artists. Whether or not they call themselves that, I call their work that because that is the way that I identify with it. It’s been quite territorial in some ways. I’ve created a territory and said you are part of it, whether you agree or not, that’s how I define it.
It has given me a space to start understanding new forms of hope and joy, especially through African art.
We want to finish by shifting our focus towards the global significance of your films. Netflix recently released its first film made in Nigeria – Lionheart – and Disney’s Marvel released their first majority black cast film Black Panther. Clearly, we’re currently experiencing a global shift towards ‘African narratives’, if you can call it that. Are your films a part of this changing media landscape? Are you excited about this shift?
I think that every time we have an opportunity to view other people or other places it adds value to our own lives. Seeing films from places that you don’t normally see films come from gives us a sense of how truly global and truly diverse we are as humans. For the longest time we had a very one sided view of the world, so I’m very glad to see this shift to see the breadth and diversity of life in films. It is incredibly important for us to see the different, joyful sides of human nature.
There was a time when films from the African continent were not getting as much love as they are now, and they didn’t have access to platforms like Netflix to distribute them. And I think Netflix is incredible helpful. All of us are working towards telling stories in a way that our tribe identify with what we’re trying to say. Because whatever we say isn’t going to please everybody, but it’s definitely going to resonate with the people who identify with the kind of ideas and ideology that we have.
The last question was grounded in terms of ‘African narratives’, clearly navigating this charged terminology can be highly complex. It would be interesting to hear whether you would label Rafiki as a ‘Kenyan narrative’, as an ‘African narrative’, or if you would prefer that this context was rejected and it was instead viewed as just a ‘narrative’?
When we see American films we don’t regard them as an ‘American narrative’. I think that the moment we start to label things we start to other people. So we say ‘black narrative’ or we say ‘African narrative’ and we try to give it a size and a place which can be easily confined. Not even defined, confined, so you can put it in its place and say it is different, and that for me is a form of otherism.
If we could call stories stories, and call good stories good and bad stories bad we would be heading in the right direction. But the moment we start to divide, we have to question who is in charge of the division, and why? I think it goes into the political reasons of why people are trying to other different groups and I’m not comfortable with that idea.
What do you want to see coming out of African film over the next 10 years?
Firstly, I hope that African film is funded. And it’s funded within Africa, with no attachment that requires it to be prescriptive, or educational. I hope that it can break out of the idea of being called an ‘African’ anything. It can just be film. People can just see it however they want to see it, so that the only genre when we are describing it is science fiction, or drama, or romance, and that is the only defining factor about it. I want to show that there is a market for it,and for African film to be selling productively.
I want more films, that are making more money, that have a more diverse cast, and are seen truly for their stories, rather than their geopolitical region.
Aysha Taylor is a student documentary filmmaker, producer and editor and all-round lover of film. In her final year of studying at the University of Exeter, she is currently preparing to embark on a career in the film industry. Her writings on postcolonial film have previously been published at The Undergraduate Journal, while her last documentary was exhibited at the M Shed museum for 5 months in 2018, and her latest music video for Pattern Pusher’s single ‘Shakey’ has been nominated for Best Technical at the 2019 NASTA Awards.
Molly West is a final-year student at the University of Exeter, studying English and Film. Her areas of specific interest include feminist film, surrealism and African literature. She has previously written for the Reuters Foundation, as well as various TimeInc. brands, and is hoping to pursue journalism further once she graduates.
Ben Apea is a final-year undergraduate student at the University of Exeter, studying Film Studies. His areas of interests are African Literature, Film History, Film Art and Practical Filmmaking. He has written film reviews for MANDEM.com and Exepose and has recently started developing his debut documentary short film which will be assessed as his Creative Dissertation.