‘Rafiki’ Writer-Director Wanuri Kahiu Signs With The Gotham Group
EXCLUSIVE: Wanuri Kahiu, the award-winning writer-director of Rafiki, a film that was banned in Kenya after the filmmaker refused to alter the film’s portrayal of a lesbian relationship and played at this year’s Cannes in Un Certain Regard, has signed with The Gotham Group. The movie was the first Kenyan film invited to Cannes before the Kenya Film Classification Board banned it.
Rafiki (which means “friend” in Swahili), tells the story of Kena and Ziki — both considered “good” Kenyan girls destined to become “good” Kenyan wives who both long for something more. Despite the political rivalry between their families, the girls resist and remain close friends, supporting each other to pursue their dreams in a conservative society. When love blossoms between them, they are forced to choose between happiness and safety.
When it was banned in Kenya, they tweeted: “Anyone found in its possession will be in breach of law.” Under national law there, gay sex carries a 14-year jail sentence. Despite the ban, it found international distribution through Orange Studios and MPM Premium.
“Wanuri Kahiu is a prodigiously talented and brilliant woman,” said Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, founder and CEO of The Gotham Group. “As an advocate for Africans, especially young women, Wanuri has established herself as a major cultural force. That she refused to edit Rafiki in any way to avoid the Kenyan ban is a testament to Wanuri’s courage and commitment to her creative vision.”
Born in Nairobi, Kahiu is part of a new generation of African storytellers receiving attention and international acclaim. Kahiu’s 2008 feature From a Whisper is based on the real events surrounding the bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, for which she wrote the screenplay, won multiple awards at the Africa Academy Awards, including best director and best picture.
Her short sci-fi film, Pumzi, which she wrote and produced, is a haunting parable about a world without water, It screened at Sundance in 2010, won the Venice Film Festival’s “Award of the City of Venice,” and was named best short film at Cannes in 2010.
“In our difficult times, and I say this despite the serious themes in much of my work, I also believe film – and television – needs images of joy and frivolity as well,” said Kahiu. “My hope is that the whole dimension of the human spirit, in Africa and around the world, be reflected in my work.”
Kahiu is also the co-founder of Afrobubblegun, a media company that supports, creates and commissions fun, fierce and playful African art.
After Seeing Her Gay Love Story ‘Rafiki’ Banned In Her Homeland, Kenyan Director Wanuri Kahiu Calls For Artistic Solidarity – Cannes Studio
A tender, colorful lesbian love story set in the bustling streets of Nairobi, Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki was an early hit at this year’s Cannes film festival, screening in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Sadly, the film was not so warmly received in Kenya, where the authorities—much like the broader community in Kahiu’s film—turned out not to be so broad-minded. Stopping by the Deadline studio, the director took time to explain the situation at home.
Related’Rafiki’ Writer-Director Wanuri Kahiu Signs With The Gotham Group
Said Kahiu, “After you make a film [in Kenya], you have to get it classified by the Kenya Film Classification Board. So we presented our film to the Kenya Film Classification Board for a classification, hoping that we would get an 18 rating because we believed that the Kenyan audience is mature enough and discerning enough to be able to deal with that subject matter. They’re old enough to vote, so we believe they’re old enough to watch the film. Unfortunately, the Kenya Film Classification Board did not feel that the themes and the film itself were good for a Kenyan audience. So they decided to restrict the film, which means we cannot broadcast, exhibit, distribute or possess the film within the Republic of Kenya.”
The filmmakers, however, will not be taking this lying down. “We feel that the Kenya Film Classification Board went outside of their mandate,” Kahiu said, “and are absolutely trampling on our constitutional rights, which include freedom of expression. Once we get home [from Cannes] we would like to see if there’s a way that we can push for our constitutional rights. But it’s still early days now, so we need to get home and figure out what’s next—because, unfortunately, an appeal process means appealing to the same board that banned the film.”
Asked what she thought the international film community could do to help, Kahiu came back with a surprising plan of action. “I think that one of the things that we would love—and not only myself, but also the other filmmakers that are in Cannes that are either under house arrest or are facing such discrimination because of the work that they’re creating—is [for people] to support the voices of artists. Art is art, and everybody has the right to freedom of expression, especially in countries that have a constitution that ensures it.”
“Any support is good support,” she continued, “and any person within the filmmaking community who feels that this is an important struggle should just even tweet. Any social media support to say we have the right to freedom of expression really helps the government see that this is a larger issue. It’s not about banning a single film. It’s about repressing ideas and stories, and I feel like that in itself goes against the human spirit. Because humans are stories.”
For more from Kahiu, check out the video above.