The 2018 film, Rafiki, by co-writer/director Wanuri Kahiu, follows Kena and Ziki, two friends who encourage one another to follow their dreams by going to college and starting careers as young women in Kenya. Their friendship blossoms into love, but in their home city of Nairobi they face homophobia and oppression are viewed as criminals in their society, which still happens to many LGBTQ people in Kenya.
The film remains banned in Kenya, with the head of the Kenya Film Classification Board saying it “undermined the sensibilities” of Kenyans by “promoting lesbianism.” That ban was only lifted for a week so the film could be eligible for an Academy Award. But the film has found success and support internationally, becoming Kenya’s first official film entry in the Cannes Film Festival.
Now, Out! For Reel LGBTQ Films is bringing Rafiki to Northampton’s Academy of Music Theatre this Saturday for a 7 p.m. screening. But ahead of the showing, the Valley Advocate spoke in a phone interview to the film’s producer, Steven Markovitz of Big World Cinema in Cape Town, South Africa, about creating films that speak out against injustice, how the film challenges cultural stereotypes, and discrimination by Facebook for the Northampton screening.
Chris Goudreau: First off, you’re the founder of Big World Cinema, which released Rafiki as well as many other films and documentaries. How did you develop Big World Cinema and how has it grown since you started it in 1994?
Steven Markovitz: The reason I started the company was before that: I was working for foreign news agencies helping them get stories and it became a very frustrating experience. And I thought, “We as South Africans, we need to start telling our own stories.” 1994 was the birth of democracy in South Africa. It was an optimistic period and we all thought the world would change overnight. So, we started a production company to start making South African films. We started off making short films and short documentaries and eventually got into longer format and feature films and feature documentaries. And then, about 10 years ago, I [made] the decision to start working with the rest of Africa. And now we’ve produced documentaries and feature films in over 20 countries in Africa.
Our main mission is very much to challenge the dominative narrative of Africa. And we will only get involved with a project if it is challenging that dominative narrative. We think that it’s really important to create work that is looking at Africa at a very different angle than the way the mainstream media covers the continent.
Chris: Do you think that there’s some hope that the film’s ban in Kenya would be lifted and that new tolerance for LGBTQ people would arise in that country?
Steven: I think there’s been some progress and the beginnings of an opening up. Now what’s happening in Kenya is the law that bans homosexuality, which is a colonial law, is being challenged in the courts at the moment and the results will be out on the 22nd of May. We’re hoping that would be a big breakthrough for the country to create a framework for more tolerance in the country.
At the same time, [Rafiki director] Wanuri [Kahiu] is challenging the ban through the courts. And the constitution is very progressive, but a lot of the laws are still very conservative from the colonial era. So, if we win this case in the Kenyan courts, it’ll open up other opportunities for artists and filmmakers to be able to freely express themselves creatively and will undermine this kind of conservative attitude in governments.
In terms of making a lesbian love story in Kenya, for us, we wanted to make a film that didn’t feel like a human rights film, but a film celebrating African joy and love. And so that was the primary aim. Obviously, dealing with the subject matter — forbidden love — there’s going to be conflict and obstacles that the characters each overcome, but we didn’t want the film to feel like homework or medicine.
Chris: The film shows a very multifaceted and vibrant version of Kenya that probably speaks to the reality of living there. I feel like people especially have different stereotypes about people from different countries in Africa and the continent as a whole.
Steven: I think every city has many facets and strands of realities. I think the way that many cities have been portrayed in America and Europe and the way African cities have been portrayed are often a very limited strand, which are the slums, the shacks. The breaking down of society is what one normally sees. What we showed was lower middle-class families. That’s pretty close to the realities. I’ve lived in some of those neighborhoods and seen very similar situations to how it’s portrayed in the film. When we developed the script, the writers went and found the location first before they did the rewrite of the script. There’s probably about 15,000 people living there in apartment blocks and it’s almost within a town within a city.
Chris: The screening of this film is happening in Northampton and as you might know, the city has a very strong and supportive lesbian community that dates back to the 1970s. What do you think of that history in connecting this city with the film?
Steven: We’re very excited that the film is screening in [Northampton] and that it has this long tradition of a lesbian community that’s out and proud and very much part of the community. I think that it’s something that many people in Kenya would aspire to be in an environment like that. Hopefully, they’ll see the challenges that lesbians have faced in the U.S., and the victories that have been won and why it’s important not to live in a silo and have connection and support other lesbian communities across the world who are going through similar challenges that lesbians faced in the past in the U.S.
Chris: I got an email from the executive director for Out! For Reel [Jaime Michaels] and she told me that they’re facing their own discrimination when it comes to promoting this over social media.
Chris: Yeah, Facebook denied promoting the event because they called it a political event. This is a cultural event, Jaime Michaels said. They refused to promote it and they have to go through this lengthy application process over social media. What are your thoughts about that?
Steven: I think that’s outrageous that a tech company is limiting and censoring organizations that are promoting art. It should be challenged in all its forms and exposed in all its forms. Just because the film is dealing a lesbian love story, why should it be treated any differently from any love story? In most films, there’s always a conflict or a challenge. In this film it happens to be a law.
For more information about Rafiki or to purchase tickets to the screening visit www.aomtheatre.com/event/out-for-reel-lgbtq-films-rafiki. Doors open at 6 p.m. Film starts at 7 p.m. $10 advance, $12 at the door. The event will also include a Q&A with a Kenyan asylum seeker, who will speak about her experiences as a lesbian in Kenya after the film.
Chris Goudreau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.