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“Much to the displeasure of its government, the Republic of Kenya is home to a lovely lesbian coming-out movie. Rafiki, the second film by Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu, has been banned in its country of origin, although the ruling is being appealed. Perhaps the warm reception Rafiki received in Cannes will make the Film Classification Board modify its decision, although in a country where same sex relationships are punishable by prison sentences of 14 years, and homophobia, as the film shows, is ingrained, that seems doubtful.
Adapted from a Ugandan short story, Monica Arac de Nyeko’s Jambula Tree, Rafiki is set in a Nairobi housing estate, where much of daily life – work and recreation – is conducted outdoors, and privacy is next to impossible. The movie opens with Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) circumnavigating on her skateboard a neighborhood that is much too confining for her hopes and dreams. Tall, rail-thin, and athletic, Kena is a serious student who claims she wants to study nursing although her grades easily place her on track to become a doctor. Kena plays soccer with the local boys, and her bestie is Blacksta (Neville Misati), who imagines that he’ll marry her someday. But Kena has eyes for no one except Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), she of the pink and blue dreads, whose flirty eyes fix on Kena often enough to make her own cool-girl posse jealous…
That Kenya is late to the women coming-out film party is a function of its social and political structure; it doesn’t lessen the courage and freshness of Kahiu’s filmmaking. The actors are vivid, in particular Mugatsia. She makes us want Kena to have a great life and to believe that against daunting odds, she definitely has a shot.” — Amy Taubin, Sight & Sound