When Wanuri Kahiu’s film “Rafiki” screened at Cannes last year, it was the first Kenyan film to shown at the festival. It went on to be selected for the Toronto International Film Festival, the American Film Institute festival and the British Film Institute London International Film Festival, yet to this day remains banned in her home country.
Kahiu didn’t set out to make a political statement. She began with the simple intention of telling a love story, which just happened to be one between two young women. (Same-sex marriage is banned in Kenya, and homosexuality is generally viewed as taboo across the conservative society.)
Kahiu, also the founder of African art collective Afrobubblegum, was born and raised in Nairobi, the daughter of a pediatrician and a businessman. Her mother was her introduction to film: One day when she was younger, her mother took her to a friend’s house where they had a TV studio in their home. “And it wasn’t until I walked into that studio that I realized that people make TV. It just never occurred to me that people make film and TV,” she says. “And when I realized that that was an option, a career option, I jumped at it. Ever since I was 16, I never changed my mind. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
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Kahiu went abroad to the U.K. for her last two years of high school, followed by undergraduate studies at the University of Warwick and a masters in film at UCLA before returning to Nairobi to begin her career.
While she continues to fight for “Rafiki” in Kenya, her career is taking off in Hollywood. Her next project is directing a film with Universal called “The Thing About Jellyfish,” which will star Millie Bobby Brown and is produced by Reese Witherspoon, and she’s recently been revealed as director and cowriter for the screen adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s “Wild Seed,” produced by Viola Davis’ JuVee Productions for Amazon.
The movie “Rafiki,” which is now being shown theatrically in the U.S., is adapted from the Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story “Jambula Tree.” Kahiu says she obviously knew going into it that creating the film would be controversial, given the cultural views towards homosexuality in Kenya culture, but that she wasn’t set on making any sort of larger statement.
“More than anything, I just wanted to tell a love story. And my producer at the time was looking to adapt modern African literature to film,” she says. “‘Rafiki’ was just so delicate and nuanced and so tender and beautiful. So that was my ambition, to find a love story, and add more love stories to African cinematic history.
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“It wasn’t as a result of it being taboo or anything that drove me to tell the story,” she continues. “Love is courageous in all its various shapes and forms.”
The film continues to be banned in Kenya to this day; there was a period where it was lifted, for seven days, during which the Kenya Film Classification Board threatened to send police officers to guard the door to verify everyone entering was over the age of 18.
Still, audiences ventured out for the film en masse, and the reaction, Kahiu says, has made her entire battle worth it.
“It’s created safe spaces,” she says. “The LGBT community being able to go and see the film for seven days, and people coming out to their families, was really great because it started the conversations within the families that we wanted to start within families, you know? Wherever [the film] moves, it has this really interesting ability of creating spaces where people feel like they can be themselves. And people feel they can bring their families and introduce them to their real selves.”