PAFF: ‘Stories of Our Lives’ is a soul-stirring reclamation of silenced voices

SOOL_A2_PosterOne of the films that best embodies the ethos of the Pan African Film Festival this year is Stories of Our Lives, an anthology film directed Jim Chuchu. Reenacting personal stories from the lives of various members of the oppressed LGBT community in Kenya, this stirring film gives a voice to those who have been silenced. Indeed, while the film has banned in its home country, its important message has deservedly been given a platform at various festivals around the world.

In the first film, titled “Ask Me Nicely”, two teenage girls Faith and Kate strike up a romance in the hallways of their high school. When principal finds out about their secret activities however, Kate is suspended. And while away, Kate decides to experiment with a heterosexual encounter, which will have dire consequences upon her return to school and her girlfriend.

Starting with an endearing meet cute and ending on less cordial terms, “Ask Me Nicely” provides a strong intro into the antagonistic society being portrayed throughout these 5 vignettes. Featuring pitch-perfect performances by the two leads, as well as the actress who plays the principal, the film shows how societal pressures can damage the sense of self-worth and identity in even the most assured individuals.

Like “Ask Me Nicely”, the second story “Run” hinges on the ramifications of a secret encounter. A young man named Patrick learns of an underground gay nightclub, where its patrons are able to express their true selves, unlike their daily environment. Enticed by the idea, Patrick plans to venture there one night, hoping his homophobic best friend won’t find out. But this risky proposal soon goes South when his secret life is revealed in the open. As things get violent and friendships are broken, “Run” is a harrowing examination of how LGBT youth in Kenya are left to feel subhuman and alien in their own home.

Just as Patrick’s ordeal forces him to run, Ray sees this as the only choice in his story called “Athman”. In this tale of unrequited love, Ray is tormented by his feelings for his straight best friend Athman. One day, Athman’s open flirtation with a new girl named Fiona causes Ray’s feelings to rise to the surface. The two friends then meet to address the issue with empathy and respect. But Ray can’t seem to bear the pain of seeing his love with someone else. At first strikingly intimate, then viscerally powerful, “Athman” impressively captures the sweeping feel of a full length feature.

In the fourth vignette titled “Duet”, a Kenyan scholar named Jeff is away in Europe on business. Waiting in his hotel room for a visitor, it is soon revealed that he has hired a sex worker. Furthermore, the man was specifically hired to fulfill his fantasy about sleeping with a white man. Soon after his arrival, the pair begin to discuss stereotypes and perceptions about race and culture. At times cringeworthy – albeit appropriately so – “Duet” is nevertheless captured with an artful touch and valuable insight.

The concluding film is undoubtedly the most hard-hitting of them all. Titled “Each Night I Dream”, it follows a lesbian couple under disguise as sisters amidst the rise of dangerous anti-gay laws. As the situation becomes increasingly worrisome, the central character Liz begins to ruminate on thoughts about gender, existence and belonging. Though her dreams cause the film to get bogged down in somewhat gratuitous visual poetry, the filmmaking here is the most refined, with indelible imagery and a lyrical quality to the storytelling that provides an elegant conclusion to the series.

Produced by a team of artists called The Nest Collective, Stories of Our Lives shines a vibrant spotlight on tremendous African talent. Shot in gorgoeus black and white, poignantly acted and beautifully written, provides an African perspective that needs to be seen. Ending on a note of pride rather than holding up martyrs for the cause, it’s a powerful statement on humanity. Although this community is treated as outcasts in their society, their stories share universal concerns of love, friendship and acceptance that we can all relate to.