Rafiki opens with a burst of unfiltered teenage energy. A girl’s skateboard makes its way through the cracked streets and past the colorful kiosks of the Kenyan city in which she lives, as an anthemic pop song plays. Title cards splash the screen, depicting its two leads in icon-like artistic renderings, mythologizing them and their romance before we’ve even met them. Far from a spoiler, it sets the tone, like initials scrawled on the cover of a notebook or photos taped in a locker, of the kind of vision-board love the two young protagonists aspire to, no matter how impossible it may seem.
Rafiki, which makes its debut at Cannes despite being banned in its home country, is also the first Kenyan film to play the festival. It’s an auspicious moment for director Wanuri Katiu, perhaps too auspicious for a film so light in its execution. Its story line doesn’t stray too far from what’s become a familiar LGBT romance template: love blossoms but is beset by external forces that conspire to snuff it out. The cultural particulars of growing up gay in Kenya (which trends extremely conservative when it comes to gay rights, and where same-sex sexual activity is illegal) give it dimension — the protagonist of Love, Simon was certainly never sent to church to have the demons drawn out of him by the congregants. But its lead protagonists and their endless reserve of raw, bittersweet chemistry are Katiu’s greatest asset.
The girl on the skateboard is Kena, a lanky tomboy played by Samantha Mugatsia. With her pleasantly sleepy eyes and beatific smile, Mugatsia is a compulsively watchable film presence, her sloping posture both relaxed and yearning. She’s rivaled only by Sheila Munyiva as Ziki, the daughter of a rich politician who is Kena’s father’s opponent in an upcoming election. It’s hard to believe that both young women are first-time actors, complementing each other intuitively. Early in the film, we see Ziki dancing in the street with her girlfriends, her pastel-rainbow-wrapped braids gathered on her head in an exuberant pile of color; Kena watches her with glamorized shyness. Ziki is more a hothead and a flirt, the first to break through the two girls’ silent, smiling glances from across the street and suggest they go hang out.
When Kena and Ziki get together, time gets a little unstuck, the world gets softer, more impressionistic. Katiu doesn’t mind if the dialogue doesn’t sync from time to time, showing us a quiet moment or a tender touch as their halting, often nervous conversations float over it. These are some of the film’s strongest moments, as the two talk about what they want from their futures — Ziki dreams of traveling “someplace where they’ve never seen an African,” and both agree with certainty that they don’t want to be “ordinary Kenyan girls,” as their hand-holding and enchanted gazes into each other’s eyes become furtive kisses and embraces.
But these sequences also possibly belie Katiu’s working with in her country’s strict content standards, the intimacy sometimes feels as though it’s straining against its own elliptical depiction. This forces a more poetic, suggestive treatment of Kena and Ziki’s love, but for an audience used to far more explicit onscreen treatments of gay sex (or sex in general), it may come off as a little nervous. It’s certainly apropos, given the high stakes in keeping their relationship a secret — a local gay kid is harassed and harangued in public by Kena and Ziki’s friends, a sinister foreshadowing of the horrific turn the film takes when the girls’ relationship is discovered by the community. The film carefully builds Kena’s world and her circle of friends and family, making it that much more crushing when so many end up turning on her.
Rafiki is lively and full of vision; this is Katiu’s second feature film, and it’s clear she has a wonderful eye for detail and lyricism. But where its script comes up a bit short, Munyiva and Mugatsia carry it across the ultimately hopeful finish line. One hopes that the rest of the world has the opportunity to discover them soon.