Kenya’s LGBTQ community is celebrating after the Kenyan High Court temporarily lifted the ban on the queer drama Rafiki. The critically acclaimed film, based in Nairobi, navigates the romance between two women in a country where homosexuality is illegal, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. After months of protesting the strict criminalization and censorship of the film, hundreds attended its initial, celebratory screening.
In April 2018, the Kenya Film Classification Board banned the film “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans.” Homophobic colonial-era law and its implications for queer livelihood is one of the main themes of the film itself. Possession of Rafiki became a criminal offense.
Rafiki premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the May 2018 Cannes Film Festival, as the first Kenyan film selected for the festival, receiving rave reviews. However, to qualify as Kenya’s entry in the 2019 Academy Awards, Rafiki (which means “friend” in Swahili) had to be released in its country of origin. The decades-old ban made this task seem nearly impossible — but Wanuri Kahiu, the film’s director, crusaded, suing the Kenyan government to lift the ban. And on Friday, September 21, she succeeded.
On Sunday, September 23, the film opened at the Prestige Cinema in Nairobi to an ecstatic full house of over 450 people, who cheered the remarkable win for LGBTQ rights and artistry. The theater opened a second screening room to accommodate the sizable crowd.
“This week means so much to so many people. People can see themselves on screen and they can know that it is okay to express themselves in that way,” a cinemagoer told Reuters at the inaugural screening. “This feels like a safe space, but the second I leave this [cinema], I don’t want anyone to see my face like that. Not because I’m scared that I am not a normal person, but because I am scared of expressing myself that way. So much judgment comes with it.”
The film, inspired by the Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story, “Jambula Tree,” explores the interpersonal, political, and religious implications of queer romance through the burgeoning love between two politicians’ daughters, Kena and Ziki.
The film is legally able to screen for seven days (through September 29) to meet the Academy Award’s requirements. Initially intended for daytime-only screenings at the Prestige Cinema in Nairobi, the colossal support lead to multiple additional theaters showing the film across the city, and in Mombasa and Kisumu. The filmmakers have advised moviegoers to carry national ID cards or other forms of identification to attend screenings of Rafiki.