AFI Fest Review: ‘Rafiki’ Is an Urgent Story that Avoids Feeling Rushed

2018 AFI FILM FESTIVAL: Sometimes a film comes along that is so pure with its intentions it forces you to take notice. Banned in its native Kenya, Wanuri Kahiu’s “Rafiki” is one such film.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) lives a fairly expected life. She has good friends, works in her father’s store, and awaits the results of a college entrance exam to determine if she can continue her education and become a nurse. Kena is a child of divorce and splits her time between the mother she lives with and the father she works for. While her father has moved on to a happy life with a new wife and runs for political office, her mother sits at home and constantly wonders, “Did your father ask about me?”

Mugatsia gives a strong and understated performance. She is a girl who has aspirations but is full of self-doubt and is, therefore, unwilling to dream too big. It is a remarkable debut for the young actress, full of the kind of heart and depth that even seasoned performers often struggle to portray.

Kena’s life is simultaneously simplified and complicated when she meets Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), the daughter of her father’s political opponent. After some initial forays into friendship, a point comes when the two can no longer deny the growing attraction between them. Like Mugatsia, Munyiva is a newcomer to film, and her debut is equally strong. She brings a vivacious energy to the screen, adding brightness to a story that could otherwise have been something flat.

As the relationship blossoms between Kena and Ziki, Kahiu finds ways to inform the audience of the serious situation the teenagers face. Homosexual relationships are illegal in Kenya. And even if they weren’t, rampant homophobia puts them in danger from supposed friends. These dangers are on display in overt and subtle ways. But the director manages to stop short of belaboring the point.

“Rafiki” is the Swahili word for “friend,” and the story explores different facets of friendship. Kena and Ziki each have their own groups of friends, both of which they brush aside in favor of each other. Even before they give in to their mutual attraction, their friends know something is changing.

Of course, the word “friend” also serves to show the way homosexual relationships are diminished in Kenya. The two young women aren’t “girlfriends” or “lovers.” They are allowed to be nothing more than friends. And in that way, Kahiu’s story further serves to help the audience understand the unfairness of the situation.

Filming “Rafiki” was a dangerous proposition. Because of the country’s severe “decency” laws, the entire cast and crew put themselves at risk simply for participating. Once word got out of the completed film, it was banned in Kenya, although it went on to open at Cannes this past spring. The reception was strong enough that the government temporarily lifted the ban to allow limited screenings. Some thought this meant “Rafiki” might make the cut as the country’s official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, but it did not.

In addition to strong performances from the two leads, there are other elements that work very well. The cinematography and production design paint a picture of a world that is full of opportunities, while also feeling claustrophobic. Everywhere anyone goes, everyone is there. It is impossible to escape relatives, town gossips, antagonists. And yet, it feels vaguely like home, too.

To some, the story co-written by Kahiu and Jenna Cato Bass may seem a little saccharine. The romance flows along nicely until social stigmas interfere. In another setting, it probably wouldn’t work as well. The relationship between the girls is necessarily repressed, and that is what makes it so effective. Every second of the runtime is infused with the knowledge that this is a film that shouldn’t exist. But thankfully it does. And the best way to celebrate that fact is to seek it out and watch it.

“Rafiki” is still seeking US distribution.

GRADE: (★★★½)

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