Celebrating Women’s March with ‘Rafiki’ for FilmScene’s Pride Series

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Women’s March: Rafiki

FilmScene — Monday, March 11 at 6 p.m.

‘Rafiki’ video still

FilmScene kicked off its second Women’s March on Friday, March 1 with art, hors d’oeuvres and the opening of Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, about hardboiled detective Erin (played by a parched and piercing Nicole Kidman), and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, about a young Lebanese boy Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea). The schedule for this month is flush with a variety of films.

Rebecca Fons, FilmScene’s Programming Director, said, “For year two, we really wanted to showcase emerging voices that represent the new attitudes, points of views and styles, and [we] landed on four titles in the ‘Vanguard Voices’ section that are all sneak previews. These four films won’t even premier theatrically in New York and Los Angeles until as late as June, but they are coming to FilmScene first, which is really exciting.”

The second film in the Vanguard Series, Rafiki, directed by Wanuri Kahiu, will play at FilmScene on Monday, March 11 at 6 p.m. as part of their monthly Pride series. (The first, The Third Wife, was presented on March 4.)

Rafiki is a Kenyan coming-of-age story that chronicles the budding romance between Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). The two young women must keep their desire for one another secret as their church pastor lambasts homosexuality as an affront to God and both women’s fathers are running for political office. The film was initially banned in Kenya due to the fact that it’s a lesbian love-story, but director Kahiu sued the KFCB and finally won the right to screen the film for seven days in Kenya, despite the government’s efforts to thwart her.

Homophobic characters are introduced immediately at the start of Rafiki. Kena, a dutiful daughter who works for her father’s political campaign and cares for her mother, spends her free time with a group of guys who assert their masculine virility by sleeping with women and calling other men homophobic slurs. Kena’s acceptance by the men (she drinks with them, plays soccer with them) and her camaraderie with them make “legitimate” not necessarily Kena’s “masculinity,” but her lesbianism, rendering her same-sex attraction as more clearly legible (Kara Keeling writes similarly about Cleo, Queen Latifah’s Set It Off character, in The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense).

Kena repeatedly bears witness to homophobia’s pervasiveness in her environs, whether through women gossiping about her, her mother asking if she’s glowing because of a “boy,” or a police officer asking Kena and Ziki later in the film, “which one of you is the man? It’s for our records.”

When Kena first meets Ziki, Kahiu frames both women in close-up with the background blurred behind them. Through this formal choice — to focus only on the women’s faces: cautious, curious, desiring and delighted — Kahiu lets the audience know that nothing (no one) else matters to these women from this moment forward. Their romance is bathed in a pink glow, and when they first explore the city on a date, the soundtrack swoons, “If there is a reason for love,” underscoring their connection not just as infatuation, but something deeper: something true.

‘Rafiki’ video still

When they finally consummate their desire, Kahiu cross-cuts between Ziki eating a cupcake Kena has bought her and their foreplay, a somewhat obvious metaphor (the consumption of food equals consummation), but also an apt one for a coming-of-age narrative infused with sexual awakening. Their love, their attraction, is open and obvious. When you’re young, it’s hard to hide ardor.

The moment exemplifies a comment from Fons about the film: “It’s a sweet and sincere film that had the audience I saw it with stand up and cheer (and I was with a bunch of film critics who aren’t quick to cheer).”

While some of the characters, at times, can feel slightly one-dimensional (Kena’s mother asks if her ex-husband mentioned her, reinforcing the stereotype of straight women’s sense of self-worth as contingent on the attention and approval of men) or unfortunately reductive (Ziki’s friend Elizabeth attacks Kena in a cat fight), this film pulses with color, music and hope. The connection between the two leads is especially electric.

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“The risks filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu took making the film, every glance between protagonists Kena and Ziki – it all felt like creative rebellion,” Fons said.

This rebellion, this electric charge and energy, is the propulsion for Women’s March that showcases some of the most distinct female filmmakers working world wide today. The Vanguard Series is similar to FilmScene’s Vino Vérité series (co-presented by Little Village) or the Bijou Film Board’s Film Forum, as both draw audience’s focus to a specific director and region. There’s conversation surrounding the narrative afterward with members of the community, an excellent opportunity to reflect on and engage with the film just seen.

While those who frequent FilmScene already know that you’re bound to see some of the most innovative and illustrious films on the market (Sorry to Bother You, Eighth Grade, The Rider), Women’s March highlights a diverse array of female voices, a novelty for any theater when women are still clamoring for a place in the cannon and the Academy (note the lack of female directors in the Best Picture and Best Director category this year).

Rafiki is just one film in this month’s menu that delights the senses, saturated in playful pink, like a fragrance that lingers with you long after someone has left a room: a trace, a sweetness, a tenderness.

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