Wanuri Kahiu made a splash with her Sundance sci-fi short “Pumzi,” a haunting parable about a world without water. Her LGBT love story, “Rafiki,” which premieres in Un Certain Regard, was banned in her home country just after it became the first Kenyan film selected by Cannes. Kahiu talks about the importance of being a fun and frivolous African filmmaker.
It took seven years to bring this story to the screen. Why was it such a challenge?
I think independent cinema is a challenge in this day and age, especially independent cinema coming from the global south. But this subject in particular, many people didn’t want to offend African governments by putting money into it.
Were you surprised that Kenyan authorities banned “Rafiki”?
We had hoped for an 18 rating, and while we weren’t surprised by the ban, it was still unexpected. Especially because [Kenya Film Classification Board CEO Ezekiel Mutua] had spoken so highly about it the week before.
In spite of the ban, do you think Kenyan society is starting to change its opinion about LGBT rights?
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We’re still a very conservative society, but you’d be surprised about how open-minded the youth are, and how accepting the youth have become of different types of people — not only sexual minorities, but different tribes. I feel that the divisions are fueled when either politicians or political parties want to make headway. Otherwise, the fission isn’t there, the tension isn’t as intense as when politicians or political parties are trying to use it to their advantage.
What inspired you to co-found the media company Afrobubblegum?
There was a time I was asked why my film, “Pumzi,” was important enough to discuss. And I began to think about the idea of importance — why do films have to be important? Why can’t they just be about creation? And it was that and the development of other ideas with a group of friends who felt that it was time we were taken as non-serious people. Because Africa is seen as such a serious continent. We need images of joy and frivolity as well. Because we are joyful, and sometimes we are frivolous. I feel like the whole dimension of the human spirit, or just everything humanity is, is not often reflected in Africans. We’re only reflected as one thing, and usually as serious people. And that’s mostly to do with the culture. The culture has been that. The work that we’ve been producing has been that. It’s time we had fun. It’s time we created space for our Dr. Seusses and Andy Warhols. Afrobubblegum is about the creation of pop culture.
Do you think it’s time we saw more African love stories?
Absolutely. We’re so in need of more African love stories. When we set out to make this film, what I was looking for was a love story, so that I could give back the story to myself as a teenager, when I was looking for people who looked like me in love onscreen. I only remember seeing one young couple in love, and inevitably, it was a story about HIV. To see young people in love from the continent is so glorious, and it’s so needed. For ourselves, so we can see ourselves, but also so the world can see us as people who are joyful, and full of love, and hopeful, and soft, and kind. That’s what I want to impart on the world: that we are all those things.
How do you think the sight of a Kenyan filmmaker in Cannes will help to change the narrative about Africa?
It’s just such a celebration of joy, and the film itself is a celebration of hope. We feel like we’re representing young African women on the red carpet, and I can’t imagine anything more glorious than that. For me, that’s the biggest win. The image that I’ve been holding of a strong contingent of young African women in Cannes has been the thing that has been pushing me through. It has been that one image that has given me hope and confidence and excitement about the festival.