Rafiki: Friendly Fire, by David Bax

Intelligent, confident and delicate yet powerful, Rafiki may serve as a breakout film from director Wanuri Kahiu, making her second feature. If so, let’s hope it does the same for the film’s two leads, Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, neither of whom have previous credits. Without their assured, perfectly calibrated performances, this beautiful but harsh coming-of-age romance wouldn’t succeed half so well.

Kena (Mugatsia) works in her divorced father’s convenience store and spends the rest of her time hanging out and playing soccer with her friends, all of whom are male. Her dad, John (Jimmy Gathu), is running for local office. The incumbent (Dennis Musyoka) belongs to their church congregation and has a daughter, Ziki (Munyiva), the same age as Kena. When Kena confronts Ziki and her friends about tearing down John’s campaign posters, the two young women spark and are quickly embroiled in a romance that cultural and familial beliefs–not to mention the Romeo and Juliet situation caused by their fathers’ campaigns–dictate they must keep secret.

Rafiki eventually goes to some heavy places but, from the vibrant, collage-inspired opening titles, it’s clear that the overall tone is going to be bright, bouncy and fresh. The movie’s palette is consistently brilliant and the characters all dress in such radiant colors that Ziki needs neon hair and lipstick just to stand out. It feels as if a musical number could break out at any moment; in fact, one very nearly does.

It all feels so very now, so progressive, that you could almost forget that anti-homosexual bigotry is even harsher, more prevalent and more legislatively backed in Kenya than it is here in the United States. Sex between men is illegal, though this is currently being challenged in court. Same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples are both prohibited. And there are no legal protections against LGBT discrimination. Kahiu makes us aware of these general attitudes early on but she also employs the motif of a helicopter scouting over Nairobi, effectively reminding us of the oppressive surveillance under which people like Kena and Ziki must strive.

Thus, a sense of always hiding pervades Rafiki. The title itself translates to “friend” in Swahili, a euphemism that represents the boundary of these women’s public relationship. After they endure a brutal episode of gay-bashing, we hurt for them not just because they are hurt but because their bruises become scarlet letters they can’t take off.

Every furtive moment Kena and Ziki do get to themselves feels like snatching a piece of heaven. In the scenes of courtship and of their first physical encounters, Kahiu adopts an elliptical mode of editing, highlighting the dreaminess and separation from time and reality they must feel. Rafiki is a social issue film, a work of advocacy; but it’s power comes less from the terrible truths on which it shines its light and more from its aching, recognizable encapsulation of the flush you feel when a brand new crush is requited, like you’re full of helium, warm and floating through the world. Most of us are lucky enough to have had this experience and all of us should be allowed to.

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