- The movie generated acclaim and attacks in equal measure, before Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) banned it in April in Kenya for depicting homosexual scenes.
She describes herself as fun, fierce and frivolous. And, truly, Wanuri Kahiu, a film producer, director and author, is the epitome of a stubborn spirit of grit and appetite for finesse in what she does. Kahiu goes for what she desires, setbacks and even controversy notwithstanding.
Her pursuit of film as a career occurred purely by happenstance, and Kahiu’s 22-year journey in the industry has sometimes been as stormy as it has been exciting.
Her earlier projects From a Whisper, Pumzi and For our Land were significantly successful, and won her several awards and multiple nominations.
But when she wrote and filmed Rafiki, a movie that features the life of two young women who fall in love, Kahiu, 38, had ventured into a hemisphere otherwise frowned upon, and set off a moral bomb.
The movie generated acclaim and attacks in equal measure, before Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) banned it in April in Kenya for depicting homosexual scenes.
Yet this din of criticism has not cowed the Masters of Fine Arts graduate of California University’s School of Theatre, Film and Television. Instead, Kahiu is pleased with her project, except that this is far from the kind of reaction she had hoped Rafiki would elicit at home.
“I was upset and disappointed, largely because I think Rafiki is a local story that was told here and should be seen here. The story will be playing in South Africa and other African countries. If other counties on the continent feel it’s okay to see the story, why not in Kenya?” she wonders.
With a no-holds-barred approach, Kahiu says that the ban was not based on merit, and that the film should have been given a better chance.
“Kenyans are mature enough, intelligent enough and worldly enough to be able to watch content and decide whether or not they like it,” she emphasises.
Kahiu is fiercely unapologetic about her nature of projects, saying that it is through having conversations on the most awkward subjects that a society can move forward.
“Stories of old were not always about topics that people were comfortable with. Nevertheless, these stories brought different people with different views on board to talk about issues that mattered to them,” she says, emphasising that that is the role film plays Internationally, the narrative has been different. Rafiki is one of the participating films in this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival that has been happening from July 19.
The film has been warmly received among festival enthusiasts across the world, scoring an impressive 6 out of 10 on IMDb ratings and garnering 83 per cent and 62 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, respectively.
Coming hard on the heels of the ban on Rafiki, Kahiu was nominated to the Oscars Academy, a fete she strongly believes was a validation of her work.
“As a woman, as a black woman and as an African woman, I am super proud and excited to be part of the committee, because this means we are being acknowledged. I don’t see this as a personal recognition but as a collective acknowledgement of African women’s contribution to film,” she argues.
According to her, the recognition could not have been more opportune, coming at a time when there is push for diverse representation of people in all industries, locally and internationally.
“We want to be able to see reflections of ourselves in films, behind cameras and even have our voice in committees that make critical decisions,” she says.
While admitting that Kenya is still a growing film industry, Kahiu underscores the importance of supporting different avenues of telling different stories.
“We are made up different types of people with different imaginations. There should be freedom to express these imaginations, because imagination doesn’t have boundaries,” she says.
“Homosexuals in Kenya and in Africa are an unheard and an underrepresented minority. In past generations, there were people who had same-sex relations. This is not a new concept in Africa,” she argues, adding: “Recently, we have become more like the West and started shutting people out because they are different from us, which is against the African spirit of oneness.”