MIFF Review: Rafiki

Wanuri Kahiu’s second feature comes at you with an energetic blast of vibrant living in the slums of Nairobi. From neon braids, skateboarding in the streets, and a sense of defiance, Rafiki brings its story of two young girls falling in love to the fore against the backdrop of a deeply homophobic Kenyan society. Whist the film falls to convention in its latter half, it’s blazing opening and knockout central turns from Samantha Mugatsia & Sheila Munyiva are worth the price of admission alone. 

It’s tried and true tale of the urban girl from the wrong side of the tracks who meets the stifled rich upper class girl and sparks fly. What makes Rafiki so enjoyable, if narratively familiar, is its the first gay film to come out of Kenya and how much contemporary Nairobi is an evocative place setting.

As a second feature length directorial effort, Kahiu (From a Whisper) once again peers into the plight of women dealing with exceptional circumstances. Adapting Monica Arac de Nyeko’s ‘Jambula Tree‘, with co-writer Jena Cato-Bass, she’s shifted locations from Uganda to Kenya and very much honed the script to draw out the deep, almost genetically built-in, prejudices that operate against the gay community.

Welcome to The Slopes, a lower class area of Nairobi, a community alive with youth and vibrance. Among them lives Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), a skateboarding tough chick who can more than hold her own with the lads she hangs out with. She smart, she’s capable, she’s affectionately labeled ‘One of the Boys’.

Enter Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), an extremely well off girl who easily sports the best braided hair you’re going to see in film, possibly ever. The two almost immediately hit it off and, as their connection blossoms, so too do the external pressures around them.

There’s a palpable chemistry between Kena and Ziki which is all credit to the two young performers who spark on screen together. There’s an energetic youthful undercurrent of defiance that runs in Rafiki which anchors the whole point of the film. A message that many Western coming out films have tackled previously and done here with just as much gusto.

Narratively, the film is slightly let down by its adherence to formula and convention. A subplot involving Ziki’s father being a political candidate running against Kena’s is a bit too convenient, and the pentameter of where the narrative is going to go is fairly well sign posted. Kahiu doesn’t take as many risks with this as you might expect but that doesn’t stop it from being an entertaining watch.

Sporting a hugely impressive and energetic opening act and slowing in its second half, Rafiki wins on the back of it being the first Lesbian coming of age drama to come out of Kenya, for it’s committed performances and for its bravery to call out prejudices within its society.