Kenyan actor Sheila Munyiva on screening the unscreenable

LGBTIQ communities fight to be seen and to be heard. Can the international film community help?
Kenyan actor Sheila Munyiva on screening the unscreenable

Sheila Munyiva (left) and Samantha Mugatsia (right) as Ziki and Kena in Rafiki.

Censorship is a persistent issue for the screen, arts, and media industries all over the world, though it can take many different forms.

From police raids on journalists to dissident artists who mask themselves for protection, interference from authorities is a very real risk when culture makers challenge the narratives that those in power would like to preserve.

Yet often, it is these unspeakable, unscreenable stories that are most desperately needed.

‘Growing up, you form an identity of yourself based on what you watch on TV or read in books,’ Kenyan actress Sheila Munyiva told ArtsHub. ‘And especially for us young black women, we trouble with our identity and acceptance of ourselves because we rarely saw any black women represented on screen as we knew ourselves.’

Munyiva is one of the stars of Rafiki, a Kenyan film which was prohibited from screening in its country of origin because of its positive representation of queer love. The tender coming-of-age drama depicts the budding romance between two young women, Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Munyiva), whose fathers are opponents in a local election. A fan favourite at Sydney Film Festival 2018 and Melbourne Queer Film Festival 2019, the film will screen on SBS on 1 July.

‘The film was banned because the Kenyan Film Classification Board considered the ending hopeful,’ Munyiva said. ‘That’s not something they wanted … if it had a more devastating ending, then it wouldn’t have been banned.’

‘If it had a more devastating ending, then it wouldn’t have been banned.’

Ezekiel Mutua, chief executive of the board, cited the film’s ‘clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law’ when he announced the ban. (In Kenya, gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in jail, though queer men are more likely to serve time than women.) He later tweeted, ‘Rafiki contains homosexual scenes that are against the law, the culture and the moral values of Kenyan people.’

Yet Rafiki is a production deeply embedded in Kenyan culture and society: it’s a Kenyan story, filmed and set in Kenya, featuring Kenyan actors, from an award-winning Kenyan director, Wanuri Kahiu, whom Mutua himself had praised just days before the ban in April 2018.

‘When they asked Wanui to change the ending, she refused to, and so the film was banned,’ Munyiva said. ‘That was a shock for all of us because a couple of days before, Mutua spoke very highly of the film, and called it a reflection of Kenyan society, and even called Wanui a national treasure.’

Anyone who loves queer cinema should be able to admit that often we see films which may have political importance for specific LGBTIQ communities but which lack cinematic sophistication – many are heavy-handed, predictable, visually uninteresting, and narrowly focused on love, identity, and oppression. Often, they even reinforce stereotypes (I can’t tell you how many Chinese-language trans films I’ve seen that open on a shot of a trans woman applying make-up). But Rafiki feels fresh, grounded, and unforced, with sharp attention to how socioeconomic status shapes queer life, and a distinctive visual language.

A still from Rafiki.

Indeed, many Kenyans opposed the film board’s ban not out of support for LGBTIQ rights and representation, but because they believed in the film’s artistic merit and in the right of adult audiences to decide for themselves. Larry Madowo wrote in Washington Post that the repeated attacks on freedom of expression are hurting the country’s creative industry as well as the LGBTIQ community. In 2014, Kenya banned another LGBT-themed movie, Stories of our Lives, despite international acclaim.

‘Not only does it involve work to do with queer narratives but also just any work that makes bold political statements,’ Munyiva said, pointing to the work of writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Some saw the ban on Rafiki as an attack on a prime example of African excellence. With a glossy, colourful palette reminiscent of pop music videos, Rafiki demonstrates Wanui’s ‘afrobubblegum’ aesthetic, while the story was based on an award-winning short story by Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko. Rafiki was the first Kenyan feature to be selected to screen at Cannes Film Festival.

The film’s international success helped secure a temporary reprieve from the ban. In September 2018, Kahiu sued the KFCB saying that the ban contradicted the constitutional right to artistic freedom, and that the film needed to screen in Kenya for seven days to be eligible to compete in the Oscars. Justice Wilfrida Okwany lifted the ban for a week, saying in her ruling: ‘I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society whose moral foundation will be shaken by simply watching a film depicting gay theme …  The undisputed fact is that gayism or the practice of homosexuality did not begin with the film Rafiki.’

For seven days, the film played to sold-out audiences in Kenya. Some individuals attended every single day. One community organisation bought out full theatres so LGBTIQ audiences could watch the film for free, Munyiva recalls.

The support of the international film community has been crucial at every stage of the film’s development, Munyiva told ArtsHub.

‘When Wanui was trying to make the film, she went everywhere in Kenya to get funding and she didn’t get any. She tried looking around Africa as well, and didn’t get any,’ Munyiva said. Finally, Wanui was able to fund the film through her international contacts. ‘It’s important because now we’ve seen how see how the film has transformed people’s lives, how they think about themselves and the community, and without international support, it wouldn’t have been made,’ Munyiva said.

‘If it were just Kenya, the film would have been crushed.’

‘Not only that, it gives credit where credit is due,’ Munyiva said. ‘Having done the film here in Kenya, maybe taking it to festivals here in Kenya and the like, we can easily see how quickly the film would be crushed by the government bodies such as KFCB […] but because of festivals like Cannes, and all the festivals we’ve been able to attend, Wanui is actually getting credit for the time and the effort that she puts behind her work. Samantha and I have been seen as award-winning actresses by people who wouldn’t even know who we were. If it were just Kenya, the film would have been crushed.’

However, international support can be a double-edged sword for filmmakers in countries where homegrown LGBTIQ movements are already attacked as agents of foreign influence (though often it is the anti-gay laws that are in fact a Western import).

‘Part of why the film was punished was for foreign interference, this “Western agenda being pushed in Africa”. And that’s something we went into in the film. But also because of people coming out to support, we’ve also seen a lot of activism and people speaking up and challenging these laws and these people. So it has been a bit of both for us. We did benefit incredibly from having international donors, but then because of their support, we received backlash – ‘it’s their money, it’s their agenda’ – people forgetting that the film was an adaptation of a book written years before by an African in an African setting,’ Munyiva said.

A still from Rafiki.

Nonetheless, she urges the sector to support African film and television, not only through festivals and funding but also for platforms like Netflix, HBO and Google to pick up stories that show contemporary Africa in all its diversity and complexity.

‘When you see people in other parts of the world doing such incredible things, the least you can do is offer them support, offer them a platform to talk about their work and showcase their work, and bring their art to the rest of the world,’ she said. ‘We are not supported by our government but the reason we’re doing so well is because all these international bodies are challenging the Kenyan government and making sure that the film is being seen by as many people as possible.’

As for LGBTIQ people in Kenya, they have a lot of work ahead: though other countries like Botswana, India and Bhutan have recently repealed colonial-era laws criminalising gay sex, Kenya’s high court ruled in May to uphold the law. However, an appeals court ruled in 2018 that forced anal exams on people suspected of same-sex activity were unconstitutional, and Justice Okwany’s decision on Rafiki shows that there are different perspectives within the judiciary. Another hearing on the ban is scheduled for late July.

The main priority for the country’s LGBTIQ organisations is safety, Munyiva said, as individuals face eviction by their families, homelessness, and high levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

‘Their priorities are safety for their members, physical and emotional,’ she said. ‘And also to be seen and to be heard.’

Rafiki premieres on SBS World Movies on Monday 1 July at 9.45pm and is thereafter available to watch via SBS On Demand.

Jinghua Qian

Friday 28 June, 2019

About the author

Jinghua Qian (they/them) is a Shanghainese writer, poet and provocateur living in the Kulin nations. Their work has appeared on stages, pages and airwaves including Melbourne Writers’ Festival, SBS, Popula, Overland and The Guardian. Formerly the Head of News at Sixth Tone, an English-language media outlet based in Shanghai, and a broadcaster with 3CR Community Radio’s Queering the Air, Jinghua currently serves on the board of Asian-Australian arts and culture magazine, Peril.
Twitter: @qianjinghua
LinkedIn: qianjinghua