Rafiki – interview with director Wanuri Kahiu

A story of two young women forced to choose between happiness and safety, Rafiki is a vibrant and colourful film with stunning chemistry between its two leads.
The film was originally banned in Kenya for its bold approach to LGBTQ+ representation.

We interviewed director Wanuri Kahiu at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield.
You can see our full film review of Rafiki >here<.


Reel Steel: I really enjoyed the film, I thought it was beautiful. It was based on a book, wasn’t it?
Wanuri Kahiu: It’s based on a book called Jambula Tree by Monica Arac de Nyeko, yeah.

RS: Where did you first come across it?
WK: My producer Steven Markovitz was trying to adopt modern African literature to film, so I started to read lots and lots and lots of stories because I knew I wanted to make a love story, and Monica’s was just the most gracious and kind and tender of all of the short stories and books I had read. So we then went and started trying to adapt it to screen.

RS: So what was the motivation behind adapting it? Was it wanting to tell this specific story on screen, or was it a combination of that and wanting to tell a love story in a different way?
WK: I just wanted to tell a love story, and I wanted to tell a tender love story. Because growing up, I hadn’t seen many versions of me or many versions of Africans falling in love on screen, and that became really kind of painful to feel like you don’t exist in cinema. So more than anything I wanted to add a story of love to cinematic history, especially coming from my side of the world.

RS: There’s a quote in the film which Kena says to Ziki about not being a typical Kenyan girl, was that quite a big thing that you wanted to represent? That there’s certain expectations – did you want to dismantle that?
WK: Yeah, for sure. I think that society kind of puts you in a box because of either your gender that you’re born into, the race or the religion that your family comes from, can be very kind of … it kind of takes away your liberty and your freedom to a certain extent to make your own choices and I wanted the girls to feel like they didn’t have to be put in this box. And even the idea of breaking down this box came from Ziki when she started saying “you could be so much more than a nurse if you wanted to be”.
You can think outside the box, you can be anything that you want to be, and you don’t have to subscribe to this idea in life that we’ve all been categorised into as women coming from that country. So it was definitely one of the ways that I wanted to break down barriers and give girls the right to imagine new lives or different lives.

RS: What have you found the reactions have been in the UK and other places that you’ve taken the film? Have audiences been surprised at the story?
WK: I think we’ve had really gracious and kind reactions to the film. There was a young woman who brought her father, and brought her girlfriend to meet her father for the first time to a screening. So it’s creating safe spaces in ways I never thought would happen, and that’s just glorious. In Cardiff there was a woman who came to watch the film because she said she wanted to understand how to be a more loving Christian, because she said there were gay people in her life that she loved and she just wanted to learn how to love them better, and was looking for ways and conversations to kind of start that, and that’s why she came to watch the film.
So people come with many different expectations and want to get so many different things from the film and it’s wonderful that the film is able to meet them at their need. We’ve had wonderful, genuinely wonderful responses.

RS: That’s really powerful, the fact that people are using the film to start their own conversations and engage in a bit of self-reflection really. Did you envisage that happening?
WK: No, you don’t – you can’t, how can you? Because you don’t know how anyone is going to react apart from yourself.

RS: Especially with everything that happened with the making of the film and after.
WK: The making of the film wasn’t part of the problem, it was the release of the film that was more complicated. But yeah, you don’t know what to expect, you don’t know how the film will affect anyone or how it will move or even if it will be popular or watched – you don’t know that at the beginning of the film. So for all of these things to happen it was truly, truly glorious.

RS: Religion plays such a big part of the film. I read an interview that you did where you said that homophobia is very un-African. Have you noticed any progression since the film and the whole conversation that it’s started?
WK: When the ban was lifted for seven days in Kenya, lots of people came to watch the film and then brought their families to watch the film and then came out to their families. Which is huge, because we come from quite a conservative and either Christian or Muslim country depending on where you are, and just the strength and the courage for people to come out, and for people to be able to use the film as a tool is extraordinary. And we also know the film was mentioned as part of the decriminalisation of homosexuality which is an ongoing case that is going to be decided in May. So yes, I think that the film is making differences and is being used and spoken about in really wonderful ways. I couldn’t have imagined it.

RS: Is that something you want to take forward with future projects?
WK: Well, that wasn’t the intention with this film, I was just trying to make art you know? And then that art resonated. I would love my art to continue to have resonance, but the reason that I create is because I’m an artist and because it’s my default to create and it’s the only way I make sense of the world. And I want to be better at that, I want to be better at creating work that is just beautiful and moving and has a place in the world but is also full of hope and joy, because that’s the only thing that I put on my work, is its ability to create hope and joy.

RS: That is amazing. Colour plays a really big part in the film, was that symbolic of the vibrancy of their relationship or was that something that you wanted to reflect of African culture?
WK: I think that the neighbourhood that we shot it in in Nairobi was quite colourful already – it’s really hard to escape colour in Nairobi. The way that we then used the colour was to say that this colour was a part of the noise of the world that they live in, and then when they were together we would bring down the colour slightly and make it more subtle and a little softer to represent their sense of freedom and their peace when they were together. So colour became very much a part of the language, but we knew that was going to happen when we started shooting it. We used the costume in the same way so that the girls started to look more and more — to correspond. To be, not similar, but they would match, they would reflect each other in a certain way as the relationship progressed and then they were in disharmony towards the end when things happen and we just wanted to be able to use the colour and the vibrancy of the colour and that particular neighbourhood to tell the story.

RS: Your AFROBUBBLEGUM movement – what’s next for that?
WK: One of the things that AFROBUBBLEGUM is doing is — we just termed the concept and then it kind of became a genre and other people have adopted it and are referring to their own work as AFROBUBBLEGUM because joyful, fun and it’s frivolous. So there is a festival called Africa Nouveau that happens every year that has taken AFROBUBBLEGUM as its chief concept, as the way it explains itself. So every year, for three days there is a celebration of joy and frivolity and fantastical elements of Africa and that is something that will carry on!


See our film review of Rafiki >here<.



You can find full listings of UK screenings of Rafiki here: