Wanuri Kahiu does not have a personal copy of her 2018 film Rafiki, her best known work yet, and the first Kenyan film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. The laws in her country prevent her from possessing, distributing or broadcasting her film in Kenya due to its LGBT content, she says in an interview to The Hindu. So, all of her copies are held by her producer who lives outside the country.
The Kenyan filmmaker, the recipient of the ‘Spirit of Cinema’ award at the 28th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), seems to take all of this in her stride. She does not consider even her act of suing Kenya’s censor board as courageous.
Next logical step
“If you are an accountant, and someone sits on your desk and prevents you from working, you push them off. That’s all I was trying to do, pushing away things that stood in the way of my film getting seen. I was not trying to be revolutionary or an anarchist. I felt like it was the next logical step. So being recognised for taking the next right step is such an honour. This award is a genuine honour especially when you are a small filmmaker and all you are trying to do is find the next work. I truly hope that it invigorates other filmmakers who come from communities that feel like they don’t have a voice,” says Kahiu.
As for Rafiki, which was much talked about at the IFFK that year too, she “wasn’t trying to make a political film, but just a queer love story”, based on a beautiful book that she loved.
Kahiu had grown up in Nairobi, which did not have much of a film industry to speak of, back then. Surprisingly, her staple diet on TV in her younger days included a lot of Indian films and television serials.
“We were growing up under a dictatorship. So many things were banned. The things that were allowed included the old Hollywood films and Indian films because they all were tame and very clean. I had never thought of making films until one day I went into a film studio owned by my mother’s friend. The idea that people make films for a living was extraordinary. So from the age of 16, I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I just pursued it. Even when I did business studies for an undergraduate course, because my parents wanted to, I completely tailored it to film. I would take extra courses with no credits about film scripting and film theory,” she says.
‘Afrobubblegum’, a collective that she co-founded with the aim to correct common perceptions on Africa and create a new perspective on the continent, was set off by a question someone asked. After seeing Pumzi, her 2009 science fiction film, someone asked ‘Why are you making a science fiction film, when so many things are happening in Africa’.
‘To express joy’
“Does imagination have a border? Are people not allowed to feel joy or express joy through their work because others are going through hardships? So, these questions really galvanised me to start thinking that we don’t need to be serious. I started researching different cultures of joy and about making such work. Frivolity has to be as important as tragedy. If we only see one thing of a community, then we begin to believe that it is the only thing that they can do and the only thing that they are. The people themselves begin to believe that it is the only thing they are. Then they begin to self censor their imagination because they know that the only kind of stories that they can tell are stories of tragedy because stories of tragedies about Africa sell. I wanted to change that idea and pay attention to the filmmakers, artists and musicians who are just creating because they want to express joy,” says Kahiu.
After Look Both Ways, a show with Netflix last year, she is currently working on a musical for Disney, completed Washington Black which will be coming out on Hulu, working on an independent film in Kenya and an animation with Sony.