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The Kenyan lesbian romance that got a standing ovation at Cannes

Rafiki was banned in its home country, but the dreamy, pink-hued love story could be a cult international hit

Forbidden love seems to be a surefire way to spark intrigue in a good film. But this premise was given real-life weight when Wanuri Kahiu’s new feature Rafiki was banned in Kenya, only weeks before becoming the first Kenyan film to premiere at Cannes Film Festival.

Rafiki tells the story of two girls, Kena and Ziki, the daughters of rival politicians in Kenya. They skirt the identities they’ve been assigned as they fall in love, in a country that forbids any kind of same sex relationships. (Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya; sodomy is a felony, punishable by 14 years in prison.)

Kahiu’s film was banned in compliance with these laws, with the Kenya Film Classification Board explaining that the ban was due to “[Rafiki]’s homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law and dominant values of the Kenyans”. However, this didn’t stop the film playing in the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes – a section celebrating non-traditional stories being told across 20 “original and different” works – to a standing ovation.

Rafiki begins by following Kena as she works in her dad’s convenience store and waits to get her exam results back. It’s set in a hazy pink-hued world, with MIA-inspired beats jolting the film to life in its very first frames.

“Kahiu’s direction is artistic and involving, as she finds dreamscapes in the everyday and manages to infuse every drop of colour with the optimism of love”

The connection is near-instant when Kena meets Ziki. As family loyalties and playground sabotage soon give way to a more primal attraction, their chemistry is infectious. The somewhat rough dialogue doesn’t detract from the pair’s believable romance; inspiring and woozy amidst the bright colours of their self-contained universe.

Kahiu’s direction is artistic and involving, as she finds dreamscapes in the everyday and manages to infuse every drop of colour with the optimism of love. Ziki’s candyfloss dreadlocks and lilac lipstick give her a quiet cartoonish flair, and the way that Kena uses colour in her wardrobe – from green and yellow sweatshirts to the complementary pinks of Ziki’s own palette – feels familiar to the efforts we put in to impress the people we love.

The battles faced by Kena and Ziki are soon become obvious. Their relationship begins secretly, as all good star-crossed love stories do, but when word gets out about their affair, things quickly turn violent. Physical suffering and religious cleansing are forced onto the couple, as the delectable pink hues of Rafiki’s universe suddenly feel more sickly. As easily as they fell in love, Kena and Ziki are forced apart by the opposition of their families, and the country as a whole.

The story of fighting for love against all odds is a familiar one, but by framing an effervescent lesbian romance against a backdrop of political allegiance and the societal taboos surrounding LGBTQ rights, Rafiki finds its voice – and deserves to shout it, loud and clear.