Bombastic rap music and playful collage title cards make Rafiki immediately and effortlessly engaging. On her skateboard, teenager Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) flies through the streets of her shabby but colourful neighborhood bustling with life, her smooth journey only interrupted by shots of people working or kids playing, like in a music video. Yet what gives Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s film its emotional power is its sensitive core. (Rafiki was banned in its home country for its homosexual content.) Behind the intense palette and relentless rhythm, a careful approach to characters slowly reveals the strength of their feelings as they themselves discover them.
Kena is a serious girl who helps both her parents daily, although they are separated and barely speaking. She takes care of the groceries for her mother and helps her dad run his store (as well as his local political campaign), but she still finds the time to play cards with Blacksta (Neville Misati), her irreverent and constantly flirtatious friend. Her life is peaceful, and Kahiu has a flair for capturing moments of easy tenderness. Close-ups and imaginative framings bring out the energy palpable around every street corner and in every character, never letting the humdrum of Kena’s life get boring for the viewer.
A new face soon interferes with her routine. Discreetly caught by the camera, the flamboyant Ziki — with multicolored braids, dresses and makeup — starts to appear in Kena’s field of vision and slowly takes more space within it. Many glances are exchanged before any words are spoken, but each silent encounter is charged with a different, specific energy. From childlike wonder, defensiveness and timidity to the gentle, knowing smile before the first “hello,” each stage of the classic “coup de foudre” is covered. Kahiu’s approach is at once simple and difficult to realise, based as it is on capturing the particular gestures of the actors without over-emphasising their significance. The key to blooming romance is its ineffability, and both performers share a natural chemistry that can’t be faked.
Ziki’s personality is also tactfully revealed through Kena’s eyes: mischievous but tender, independent yet generous — it is her behaviour that attracts Kena and the camera’s lens. To drown out the white noise of everyday life and better focus on Kena and Ziki’s connection, Kahiu employs sweet ballads on the soundtrack, most memorably during the girls’ first date in an amusement park. The contrast between the romantic score, loud games and bright lights makes their giggles and delicate, rising sensuality unexpectedly touching.
Neither Ziki nor Kena is at first particularly troubled by the forbidden nature of their love, and Kahiu makes that fact a piece of evidence: both are too overwhelmed with joy at having found each other. But Ziki, always dreaming of travel and complete freedom, doesn’t want to hide. The fact that her own father is also running in the local election against Kena’s dad doesn’t strike her as problematic either. Those differences between Kena and Ziki — the first is composed and intellectual, the other physical and liberated — are however not what stands between them (on the contrary). Without being didactic or simplistic, Kahiu shows the widely different ways in which the people around the girls react to their affection to suggest that, although not all Kenyans are homophobic today, lives are still ruined by a pervasive intolerance.
Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.