The premiere of Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard program on Wednesday night was enough of an event to draw four members of the main competition jury, Cate Blanchett, Ava DuVernay, Khadja Nin, and Léa Seydoux. It’s not just that it’s the first film from Kenya to screen in the festival’s Official Selection. Rafiki has become something of a cause célèbre, having been banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans.”
In the Guardian, Gwilym Mumford suggests that the ban “might lead some to expect something more transgressive than the sweet if rather contrived drama served up here. Yet, in a nation where no constitutional protections exist for LGBT people and sodomy carries a fourteen-year term sentence, even the most routine of gay dramas is an act of remarkable risk-taking. Kahiu’s film carries it off with confidence and polish.”
Most critics are on the same page, including Variety’s Guy Lodge, who finds that this “pure-hearted, candy-colored tale of first love blooming between two teenage girls in the rough streets of Nairobi” is “impossible not to celebrate, even as its decidedly conventional script skimps on richer dramatic opportunities.”
The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney finds it harder to forgive such skimping. “Based on a prize-winning short story by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko, Rafiki went through the funding and development labs of a handful of major film festivals and has been several years in the planning. Which makes it disappointing that the script by Kahiu and Jenna Bass remains so undernourished in terms of its conflicts and confrontations.”
In an interview with the New Current, Kahiu says she’s honored to have a film “play in the same festival as African cinema legends like Sembène Ousmane, Souleymane Cisse and Abderrahmane Sissako.”
Update, 5/27: Writing for Sight & Sound, Amy Taubin suggests that Rafiki “has more than a little in common with Maria Maggenti’s The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995) and Dee Rees’s Pariah (2011), to name two much loved and admired American lesbian independent movies. That Kenya is late to the women-coming-out film party is a function of its social and political structure; it doesn’t lessen the courage and freshness of Kahui’s filmmaking.”
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