#TIFF18 Review - Gay Love Story "Rafiki" Brings 'Afro-Bubble Gum' to the Screen

Updated: Jan 11, 2019

There is something magical about watching a love story unfold. Especially when the story isn’t dripping with cliches, hackneyed plots, and uninteresting character types. Love stories can be told in many different ways, and RAFIKI is a testament to the type of unique storytelling that is breaking the mold in film.

RAFIKI tells the story of two young women who are divided by their fathers political aspirations. Kena - who is shy and a bit reserved, dreams of applying to medical school to become a doctor. Ziki - donning multi color locs, is a bright, bubbly, free-spirited dancer. Despite their differences, their connection is undeniable. They soon begin to develop a budding relationship that catches the eyes of the people in their town. This leads to questions, uncertainty, aggression, and a story of overcoming obstacles for love and truth.

What truly drives the film is the chemistry between Ziki and Kena played by actresses Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva. There is a sweetness between the two that plays innocently - completely believable for new, young lovers. Their dynamic is so refreshing and it breathes life into the film.

One thing I appreciate the most about this film is how gorgeous the backdrop of Kenya looked. Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu wanted to showcase the beautiful, rich colors of her home country and referred to the style as Afro-Bubble Gum Art (Wanuri describes it as fun, fierce, and frivolous). This style fits well into the narrative of this story, because without it, it would've been a different film. A lot of LGBTQ stories have a tendency to be very heavy - with touchy subject matters that stem from identity to societal pressure and acceptance. Though RAFIKI does address these things, it never made me feel sad. You root for Ziki and Kena, and despite all of the things standing in their way, you still feel like there’s hope for them.

That feeling of “hope” is a big reason why RAFIKI was banned in Kenya. When introducing this film to a packed theater, Wanuri explained that the government would not allow the film to play. Surprisingly, it wasn’t due to the romanticism of the 2 female leads, the intimate scenes between the two, or the film's commentary on homophobia, but that the ending was too hopeful. Since then Kenya has lifted the ban temporarily for the sake of the film’s award chances (you can’t be eligible for Best Foreign Film if the film has not been played in the country they are representing).

RAFIKI is truly a triumphant piece of work that the cast and crew should be proud of. Not only does the film step out of the box by simply telling a lesbian love story based in Kenya, but the film also showcases the beauty of black people, black love, and Africa as a whole. The film truly touched me and I hope it is in the conversation come award season.