When the credits rolled and the lights came up at the end of her film’s premiere in the Palais des Festival, director Wanuri Kahiu stood next to her lead actresses Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, all dressed in off-white outfits, taking in the acclaim of a standing ovation. Someone in the audience shouted, ‘Thank you!’ and Kahiu put her hand over her heart. Festival director Thierry Fremaux motioned for them to look up and see just how many people were clapping in the theatre’s balcony seats too, lauding the first Kenyan film to ever debut at the Cannes Film Festival.
“What’s incredible about the response is that people are so excited about watching ‘happy Africa,’ Kahiu tells me the next day, with the Cote d’Azur shimmering in the sun behind her. “That’s been the most curious thing. I haven’t been reading reviews because I tend not to, good or bad, but somebody said there is a French journalist who wrote an article which said, ‘How do Kenyans fall in love? The exact same way we do.’ And that was exactly what I was trying to communicate with this film. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, we all kind of fall in love in the same way. We all kind of have joy in the same way.”
Reaction to Rafiki at the various screenings it’s had here at Cannes have been centered on the idea of how important it is—and how refreshing—to see the kinds of stories like the one the film portrays, up on a big screen. Rafiki is the coming of age tale of two young women in Nairobi who fall in love, much to the chagrin of those around them, who live in a country with a homophobic government.
The film’s banning too, by the Kenyan Film Commission, has been well-publicized, making the response it has been receiving at the festival even more poignant. Kahiu believes the film is connecting with people because it shows Africans in a different way to the poverty and political conflict so often shown on cinema. “People are so anxious to watch a joyful African film—and a modern African film at that,” she says. “Because that was the other thing; there were many people who told us they love the idea of seeing urban Africa on the screen. ‘We love that it was shot in a city, that it’s playful and fun.’ And that’s been the biggest, most extraordinary reaction,” she continues.
That Rafiki made it to the grande dame of film festivals at all is a testimony to the tenacity Kahiu and her co-producers had in seeing the film get made.
Read the rest of my story for OkayAfrica here.