From the vibrant opening credits, ‘Rafiki’ is a colourful burst of energy ready to grab you by the heartstrings and never let go. It is a travesty that this film - a beautiful exploration of first love between two teenage girls - was banned in its home country of Kenya, where homosexuality is a criminal offence that can result in a lengthy prison sentence. It just makes ‘Rafiki’ feel like even more of a triumph, a risk that pays off in emotional spades. Where the sources of tension in other romance films can feel fabricated and overly dramatic, the tension and "taboo" feels real and adds to the gravity and heartache you feel watching Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) try to make it - and trust me, you want them to. They are one of the sweetest on-screen lesbian couples in years.
Makena, or Kena for short, longs to make something of herself. As she patiently waits for her final exam results to be released, she spends her days working in her father's store, playing soccer with her friends who often flirt with her – she’s not interested - and keeping her lonely mother company. As her father decides to run for a local election, the daughter of an election rival crashes into Kena’s orbit.
Ziki is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that 2019 needs; with her explosion of pastel dreadlocks, she has the best hair in the lesbian film game (sorry ‘Blue Is The Warmest Colour’). Popular and friendly but tough enough to talk her way into playing soccer with her male peers, she breathes life into the stereotype and transcends character development limitations normally placed on such a character.
Trust me, you want Kena and Ziki try to make it. They are one of the sweetest on-screen lesbian couples in years.
Watching Kena and Ziki’s love blossom is a tender experience that will have you reaching for tissues. ‘Rafiki’ is directed by a woman, and it shows. The sexual aspect of Kena and Ziki’s neon-soaked relationship occurs largely offscreen and their intimate scenes occur clothed. It doesn’t feel like a strategy to comply with censoring; much like the camera panning away from Oliver and Elio in ‘Call Me by Your Name’, the lack of gratuitous nudity or sex keeps their delicate new romance between them only.
It should come as no surprise that ‘Rafiki’ deals with some heavy thematic ground already thoroughly covered in queer cinema, but the film handles them in a way that feels fresh and had me enchanted through the very brief run time of 82 minutes. Don’t let the short run time dissuade you, however; ‘Rafiki’ is a beautifully shot, sweet film I recommend to everyone, and that will stay with me for years.