It takes great amounts of courage to make artistic works premised on the contentious and sensitive issue of homosexuality. A movie about two women in love called 'Rafiki' has stirred a hornet's nest in Kenya - where it has been banned - but has been received warmly in Europe.
In a move that would put Kenya's film industry in a favourable position globally, what has ensued is simply controversy. The Kenyan Film Classification Board said that 'Rafiki' was banned because an intention to "promote lesbianism" in the country. It means that for Kenyans, they will no longer be able to watch the movie in the country.
Initially, the board had given some praise to the film, through its head Ezekiel Mutua, but he later changed this position and portrayed himself as a "fervent moral crusader," denigrating the film seriously. He then moved to ban the romantic movie for its "happy ending" and for showing "the resilience of youngsters involved in lesbianism".
"The film has been restricted due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law," a statement from the board said. It added that the film should not be distributed or shown anywhere in the country and anyone found with a copy would be in breach of the law.
For Wanuri Kahiu, who is the writer, director and co-producer of the movie, this was a huge disappointment. The message from the board was loud and clear to her - we do not give a damn about your defiance of fixed societal norms. She wrote on Twitter, "We believe adult Kenyans are mature and discerning enough to watch local content but their right has been denied."
"We feel that they are challenging the constitution because the constitution clearly says that artists have the right to freedom of expression," said Kahiu.
Clearly, 'Rafiki' has freaked out the conservative section of Kenya. What's evident now is curtailed freedom of speech and a shrinking of the rights of audiences and creators.
Despite this, the film became an instant hit at the renowned Cannes Film Festival where it was the first Kenyan movie to be premiered there. Cannes has come under fire for its lack of female directors, but Kahiu said that Kenya was ahead of the game.
'Rafiki', meaning "friend" in kiSwahili, is based on the 2007 winner for the Caine short story prize, Jambula Tree. The movie is a story of friendship and tender love that grows between two young women amidst family and political pressures. Kahiu sets the tender adolescent love story in Kenya, challenging her country’s own stance on LGBTQI rights.
"Our ambition is to make sure the image of Africa is also fun, joyous and full of hope. ‘Afro bubblegum’ is a genre we just invented — it’s fun, fierce and frivolous work coming from Africa," she declared.
Kahiu insists that she never had the intention to cause a scandal, and that even though there has been massive reception of the film elsewhere in the world, she really wanted the Kenyan audience to consume and digest it.
Homosexuality is still taboo in Kenya and those involved in homosexual acts can face some lengthy time in jail - a risk that the director of the film paid little regard to. When asked about LGBT rights in Kenya in a recent CNN interview, president Uhuru Kenyatta claimed it is a nonissue.
Kahiu believes that her job as a young African film director is "the promotion of joy. But even that got us into trouble making this film because they asked us to change the ending because they thought it was too hopeful. They said it wasn’t remorseful enough. But it’s important to fight for joy."