Kenya Overturns Ban on Lesbian Film in Time for Oscar Consideration

Rafiki could be headed to the Academy Awards in February after a court temporarily lifted a ban on the lesbian-themed film to ensure it could qualify.

In order to be submitted for Oscar consideration, all contenders must screen for at least one week in their home countries. Although Rafiki, which competed at the Cannes Film Festival in May, was entered as Kenya’s Best Foreign Language nominee, the deadline for submission is Sept. 30.

Just days before the deadline, the High Court of Kenya ruled that the film should be allowed to meet those minimum guidelines.

“During the seven-day suspension period the film shall only be open for viewing to willing adults only,” Justice Wilfrida Okwany told a crowded courtroom on Friday, adding: “I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society that its moral foundation will be shaken by seeing such a film.”

The existence of lesbianism in Kenyan society “did not begin with Rafiki,” she claimed.

Rafiki, which tells the story of a romantic relationship between two teenage girls, will be shown at one theater in Nairobi between Sept. 23 and Sept. 30. The film is based on the short story Jambula Tree, winner of the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing.

The news was greeted with celebratory hugs in the courtroom — and later a few tears.

“I am crying in a French airport in such joy,” writer/director Wanuri Kahiu tweeted after the ruling came down. “Our constitution is strong! Give thanks to freedom of expression! We did it.”

The Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) announced in April the film would be banned “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law,” Kahiu filed a lawsuit to overturn the decision. She called the ruling a “threat to freedom of artistic creativity and freedom of the media.”

The suit also calls for guidelines allowing the KCFB to “control the making and exhibition” of films made in Kenya to be struck down.

Dr. Ezekiel Mutua, CEO of the film classification board, initially praised Rafiki when the script was submitted to Kenyan censors prior to filming. He called the movie “a story about the realities of our time.”

In reversing his endorsement of Rafiki, Mutua claimed the film dramatically altered the shooting script — featuring unapproved changes. Kahiu alleged, however, that censors had attempted to pressure her into depicting the characters as “remorseful” of their sexuality, and she refused.

Mutua charged Rafiki with having a “clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya, contrary to the law,” claiming anyone found in possession of the film “will be in breach of law.”

The court ruling is a historic, first-of-its-kind victory for Kenya’s LGBTQ community ahead of an impending verdict on its colonial-era sodomy ban. Advocates have lobbied the High Court to strike down a law criminalizing homosexuality with up to 14 years behind bars, and judges are expected to weigh in some time this year.

In 2017, Kenya took a major step toward lifting the ban on gay sex when its Court of Appeals ruled that forced anal exams are illegal. Likened to torture, the tests are intended to discern whether someone has engaged in same-sex intercourse.

Mutua signaled, however, that he will continue to fight these recent gains in LGBTQ rights.

“It would be a tragedy and a shame to have homosexual films defining the Kenyan culture,” he claimed in a series of tweets. “That’s not who we are and homosexuality is not our way of life. What pleasure, pray, does a person of a sane mind find in watching girls having sex with other girls?”

The censorship board further called the ruling a “sad moment and a great insult, not only to the film industry, but to all Kenyans who stand for morality.”

Mutua first made international headlines last year when he called for two gay lions spotted at the Masaai Mara national reserve to be separated. Saying the animals “need counseling,” he claimed the same-sex behavior was “influenced by gays who have gone to the national parks and behaved badly.”

“I don’t know, they must have copied it somewhere or it is demonic,” Mutua said at the time.


Nico Lang

Nico Lang is a staff writer for INTO, covering news, politics, and global LGBTQ issues.

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