Interviews

Wanuri Kahiu about Rafiki

Hubert Bals Fund (HBF) and CineMart supported films often turn out to become festival favourites. Rafiki by Wanuri Kahiu is such an example, traveling the world from Cannes to the Discovery section at TIFF in Toronto. Yoana Pavlova had a short catch up with Kahiu about the film and the role of HBF.

First Kenyan entry in Cannes' Official Selection, LGBTQ barrier breaker, local ban ahead of the world premiere – Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki (2018) was one of the most buzzed about titles in May, and the next months proved quite busy too. In June, both the director and the South African producer of the film, Steven Markovitz, were invited to become members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In July followed the African premiere, as Rafiki was picked to close Durban International Film Festival.

This triumph, though, took seven years of hard work and dedication, even if Kahiu's debut feature From a Whisper (2009), as well as her sci-fi short Pumzi (2010), landed stellar festival gigs, quickly putting her name on the international map. The director recalls these testing times with a calm and positive attitude: "Steven Markovitz was quite diligent about going to every place that he could and every funder to apply for money. It took a while, and there was a time that we didn't get the grant, but we would learn and we would go back and apply for the same grant again. And that happened for a couple of grants, as every time we were rejected, we would use that information, go back, and apply for the same grant traveling when we could."

"What I remember is that they were very supportive of me as a filmmaker, trying to create the right vision."” – Wanuri Kahiu

Hubert Bals Fund turns out to be one of these key points in the trajectory of Rafiki's development. Kahiu shares her recollection: “It was just my producer who went to Rotterdam, I haven't had the pleasure of being there yet, but this was also after a long time and a long relationship of trying to establish who I was as a filmmaker, what the project was, so there had been interaction in that way. (...) What I remember is that they were very supportive of me as a filmmaker, trying to create the right vision. It felt like we had creative freedom to be able to achieve what we needed to achieve, and they allowed us the space to realize that we were like the experts of Kenya. It was great to be able to work with an organization that respects the artists.”

  • Still from Rafiki (2018), a film by Wanuri Kahiu
  • Still from Rafiki (2018), a film by Wanuri Kahiu
  • at opening night TIFF

Speaking of IFFR and HBF's long history of backing up 'difficult' projects from the continent, a parallel to John Trengove's 2017 LGBTQ drama The Wound / Inxeba (2014 HBF Plus) seems more than possible, yet Kahiu responds that they are "quite different films." She patiently points out that homosexual characters have been present in African films since the 1960s. "We are just following the lineage," she adds. Which brings the conversation to the films Kahiu watched in preparation for Rafiki. "The French director Mélanie Laurent, there is something she does in Respire [Breath] and Les Adoptés [The Adopted] that I really, really liked, because it was super tactile and... available, but I also referenced a lot of black, female artists – the works of Mickalene Thomas, Wangechi Mutu, also an amazing photographer from South Africa called Zanele Muholi."

This large framework of knowledge and inspiration is not coincidental, Kahiu is a co-founder of AFROBUBBLEGUM, a media company and a shared aesthetic understanding of Africa as an alternative narrative. Still, it is difficult to believe that Rafiki, a gentle love story of two adolescent girls set in the colorful backdrop of Nairobi and soundtracked almost entirely by female musicians, is seen as a threat by Kenyan censors. "I think art is political, even when we try for it not to be, and that is part of the process – different people interpret it in different ways, so it becomes political because we all have different opinions about how it should be. But when I made it, I made it as a love story, I made it as a piece of art, and my hope was just to be able to tell a love story, because I think there is more of them that should be coming from this side of the world, and that would continue to be my intention."

Photo in header: Filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu