by Sheena M
I arrived about 20 minutes early, and already there was a large gathering waiting to see Rafiki. The moment I walked into the waiting area at Prestige Plaza cinemas, I felt the stares. We were all sizing each other up. Who are you? Do I know you? Are you a threat? Do I have to be concerned about your presence?
It was all nerves, muscles tensed and ready to spring into action. It was like we were all doing something we knew our parents would not approve of. This feeling wasn’t unfounded. I mean, you only need to look at Ezekiel Mutua’s tweets about this movie to how bad it is. So being at the cinema waiting to watch a movie about two Kenyan girls falling in love felt like a risk in itself, whatever your sexual orientation.
The movie’s director Wanuri Kahiu has already given various statements in the media about why she chose to go ahead with Rafiki, despite it not being welcome in its own home. She insisted that she wanted to make a love story and “contribute to that language of softness.” I can confidently say that Wanuri accomplished that desire.
Rafiki is the first Kenyan feature film to be screened at a Cannes Film Festival –it was filmed earlier last year. To have a Kenyan film, about Kenyans, made by Kenyans, showcased at the largest international showcase of cinematic art is a feat to be celebrated. Wanuri is no stranger to the movie scene. Her first feature film, From a Whisper, won awards at the Pan African Film Festival and the African Movie Academy Awards. While that movie was based on the events of the 1998 bombings on the US Embassy in Nairobi, Rafiki’s inspiration was drawn from the 2007 Caine Prize Winning Short Story “Jambula Tree” by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko.
Watching Rafiki was a reminder that we are really all the same. The 83-minute film was so captivating that I did not want it to end.
Set in a fictional place called Slopes in Kenya, Rafiki tells the story of Kena (played by Samantha Mugatsia), a young tomboy living a regular Kenyan life. As we watch Kena skating along and meeting up with her male friends, it’s clear that she’s been accepted as ‘one of the guys’, even though one of the guys calls her ‘his number one girl’. When Kena’s not hanging out with Blacksta, she’s helping her dad run his shop or making sure her mom’s fed – a good Kenyan girl doing the good Kenyan girl thing.
Then one day, Kena notices a girl noticing her. This girl is obviously different – you can tell from her long, multi-coloured braids and the makeup. Even though this girl is the daughter of Kena’s father’s political opponent, Kena can’t help but be drawn to her. A friendship quickly blossoms between Kena and Ziki (played by Sheila Munyiva) and just as quickly grows into something more.
“The courage that you have when you’re in love is really what I hope resonates.”
~ Wanuri Kahiu
The opening scene of Rafiki is like an ode to all things Kenyan. Kiosks, campaign posters stuck on walls and the noa noa guy sharpening knives at the corner all blend together to paint the picture of a local Kenyan neighbourhood. As soon as the movie started, whatever tension we all had within us began to dissipate. Watching such familiar scenes drew us into a sense of comfort, a feeling of being home, even before we heard anyone speak onscreen.
As an audience, that bound us instantly. Kena may as well have been one of us – going to church with her mother every Sunday, hanging out with her boys at the local spot, eating chapo dondo. It only made the tender moments more tender and the harsh ones more painful, more alive, more real. We laughed as one at the funny parts, held our breaths when we didn’t know what was coming, gasped at the moments that shocked us and cried silently as we watched Kena and Ziki struggle to stay true to themselves.
The music was on point as well. From Kena skating along to the gentle moments between Kena and Ziki, the songs that played throughout the movie matched the mood perfectly. It was no surprise that the artists featured include some of Kenya’s most dynamic musicians. Muthoni the Drummer Queen, Blinky Bill, Mayonde, Chemutai Sage, Mumbi Kasumba, Njoki Karu, Trina Mungai and Jaaz Odongo all lent their musical prowess to the magic of Rafiki.
Wanuri’s directing shines brightest in the use of vivid close ups shots and nothing but facial expressions, showing us a lot of what is said through the unsaid, the sneer, the turn of the check, looking away and so forth. The first time Kena and Ziki share an intense staredown, it lasts long enough to undeniably feel the emotion behind it. It also lasts long enough to deliberately make us uncomfortable.
Not for any other reason other than the guilt of intruding on a moment of intimacy.
The movie tells the story of how Kena and Ziki find love and then face opposition from their family and friends because of it. Wanuri’s creative storytelling and the actors’ in-depth portrayal of their characters pull us in. The mirror image given by Rafiki is such an accurate reflection of our society that it’s impossible not to be moved.
All things 254
The hairstyles, the clothes, the buildings, the boda boda guy with his pimped out ride and even the local neighbourhood gossip were all familiar to anyone who’s lived in Kenya. Seeing all of them in cinema in a high-quality movie was surreal. It made everything seem possible. And the dialogue was so typically Kenyan we couldn’t help but relate. If anything it’s the way we say things that made many of us laugh out loud. Like Ziki saying, “A nurse? You? Why?”
Wanuri was right.
We don’t get to see as many moments of tenderness in cinema as exist in real life. Rafiki removed the veil from things we normally distance from ourselves. It helped us see that we are just as capable of love as we are of everything that is not.
And that is what makes Rafiki a powerful movie.
Sheena M is in love with words and how they shape themselves. That’s why she keeps a blog that’s not as ‘organised’ as most. To see her musings, check out her blog What She Thinks
Spoiler – they all die in the beginning.
Actually, no. By the time the movie starts they’re all dead. We set in on Kaleche, who finds herself in the middle of the wilderness. It is through the eyes of Kaleche that the world of Kati Kati is revealed to us and it is through her experience that we discover its nature. It is through Kaleche that we learn that Kati Kati is basically a form of purgatory.
The film uses this train of thought to weave a narrative on questioning, understanding ourselves, loving, and letting go. What would you do if you had to stop telling yourself the stories you told yourself? If you were forced to face the stories that you have put together to keep you afloat? The space of Kati Kati does not only ask that you face yourself in this way – it demands it.
This definitely becomes interesting when we found out that Kaleche herself has no recollection of the past. How can you face a past you don’t remember?
Of course piecing together this memory immediately becomes a key motivator for Kaleche and it is in this piecing herself together that we see her trigger the film into action – pushing people into different spaces of themselves. And Nyokabi Gethaiga plays this role well. She leads us to question with her and to seek with a similar earnestness and (possibly) naiveté.
Kaleche’s role is supported by that of Thoma, (played by Elsaphan Njora). The longest residing resident of Kati Kati, he has found himself their somewhat sensei, with an alcohol dependency and this all knowing smile. All from the beginning we see the group naturally turn to Thoma for direction on what to do next, and he always has the plan. Later in the film we found out that he is the one who set most of the traditions of the little commune – which makes sense as he has been there longer than most.
There’s something about this film that reminds me of growth. Because growth cannot truly happening without healing.
We see the question on healing particularly strongly in the scene where King(Peter Mwanzia), a clergyman of sorts (won’t even try to trip myself up on this one) is forced to face the burning of his own church during electoral violence, perhaps the director’s hat tip to the events that happened in 2007/2008 at Kiambaa. The context and meaning of the scene to the film is important. But, for a moment, allow me to dwell on the sheer beauty in the scene. We see King painting frantically, perhaps in a bid to silence his own guilt. Then we see his parishioners gathered around him, singing. The harder he paints, the more they sing. Until he gives up.
It is struggles and moments that like that the film manages to capture so well. All through Kati Kati we see characters grapple with the things they need to confront. And, while the film is about death, death doesn’t become the central theme of the story. Rather, death is a way the story moves, a way to show that something has happened in the story. In a twisted way death loses its meaning to departure. We see this as Kaleche ‘saves’ Mikey from drowning to the laughter of all – but when the thunder claps we see a different face of sorrow. The members of the commune throw a party for everyone who leaves – no one can tell if it is a happy party or a sad party because no one has ever come back (and because your fate is dependent on whatever demons you faced). But the sorrow is clearly seen on everyone’s face when the thunder claps to mean one has gone.
Sorrow is the overtone of the show and, when characters are not participating in an activity we see them moody, brooding and reflective. We watch them develop different coping mechanisms to handle the strain of having to find their way out of Kati Kati. And this sorrow weighs on their conversations. Characters tread lightly over each other, ensuring not to say words that could trigger each other too far over the edge. When Kaleche arrives on the scene her lack of memory seems to walk all over this unwritten code, setting the stage for a winding plot with a dramatic finish.
Another interesting thing about the film is how the camera wobbles. Not that it seems unstable. Rather, all through the film, the shots are bobbing – as if to remind you that you are in an eerie place (cue X Files theme music). The shots seem to hoover a bit – over characters shoulders, around their faces, behind their backs. As if peering. It makes one feel rather more like they are watching the film through their own eyes – rather than a captured, packaged and edited version. The scenery of the set is amazing with the semi-arid background somehow speaking to the barrenness of death.
The film was written by Mbithi Masya and Mugambi Nthinga. Mbithi, formerly of just a band, also directed the film. It was first released in September 2016 and has gone on to win several awards including Best Movie at the East Africa AMVCA (2017), The Fipresci prize at the Toronto international film festival (2016) and Cinemafrica Stockholm (2017).
Kati Kati is available to view on demand on several platforms including Showmax and on One Fine Day Film’s website.