CMU International Film Fest: Rafiki | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

CMU International Film Fest: Rafiki

click to enlarge CMU International Film Fest: Rafiki
Big World CInema
The Carnegie Mellon University International Film Festival runs March 21-April 7. The theme this year is "Faces of Wo/men" and explores the many facets and tensions that come with the gender.

Once a film gets banned from its home country, that becomes the central focus of watching the movie, for better or for worse. Such is the case with Rafiki, a Kenyan drama directed by Wanuri Kahiu that was originally banned for “its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans” in 2018.

The film follows Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), the daughters of rival local politicians facing an upcoming election. But when the two begin hanging out, their friendship quickly turns to flirtation, and then full-blown romance. Both parties know that what they’re doing is repulsive to their family, friends, and neighbors, and go to lengths to hide it. They’re a contrasting pair; Kena is a serious student, with hopes of being a nurse or doctor, who always listens to her parents, while Ziki is more free-spirited, with swinging technicolor locs and a penchant for dancing on public steps. The beginning of their romance is sweet, full of hidden glances, dancing, and sunsets.

Events unfold about the way you’d expect, with parents finding out and scolding their children. The girls are separated just as their love is blossoming. But Kena and Ziki’s punishments are harsher than if it were an American movie, where this kind of story might be set in the Deep South. The couple is tattled on by the town gossip, physically ripped from their hideaway, and dragged into a field to be beaten by a mob. The girls, not the mob, are then arrested (this can happen in America too, but in Kenya, gay sex can result in up to 14 years in jail).

It’s refreshing to see queer stories from outside the U.S. but Rafiki could’ve used a bit more of an edge or bite. Until the climactic revelation, which comes at the end, the movie mostly glides along on the sweet moments of a new couple, whose pairing seems more of circumstance than of love. It’s a perfectly fine movie, with compelling stories and characters, but it will be nice when not every queer story has to be the first at something, and can instead just tell a good story.

Rafiki will screen on Sun., March 24 at CMU's McConomy Auditorium and Tue., April 2 at Carlow University's Gailliot Center.