Rafiki opened to sold-out crowds in Kenya this weekend after a judge temporarily lifted a ban on the lesbian film so it could qualify for Oscar consideration.
Hundreds of people reportedly waited in line for tickets at the Prestige Plaza in Nairobi on Sunday, where the Wanuri Kahiu-directed film is scheduled to screen for one week. On Friday, High Court Justice Wilfrida Okwany permitted the movie to be shown at the Ngong Rd. multiplex for seven days in order to meet the minimum requirements to eligible for February’s Academy Awards.
Although the Kenya Film Classification Board accused Rafiki of “[promoting] lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law” in its April ruling banning the film, the judge was “not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society that its moral foundation will be shaken by seeing such a film.”
“[O]ne of the reasons for artistic creativity is to stir the society’s conscience even on very vexing topics such as homosexuality,” Justice Okwany told a packed courthouse.
But despite the controversy inherent in screening an LGBTQ-themed film in a country where homosexuality remains illegal, Rafiki was met with cheers and applause from Nairobi audiences.
The positive reception was so overwhelming that Prestige Plaza had to add additional screenings.
Local reports claim at least one screening on Thursday is completely booked. Manager Celcius Aloo told the Agence France Presse he expects the theater “to be full every day” until its limited run ends next Sunday.
Oscar bylaws state that films must screen in their home countries for one week prior to Sept. 30 to qualify in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Filmgoers in attendance on Sunday claimed its qualifying run represents a historic “victory” for the LGBTQ community in Africa after it became the first-ever Kenyan film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
“This is the kind of movie that makes it possible for mentalities to evolve,” 24-year-old Nairobi resident Daisy Oriri told the AFP.
Oriri, who made reference to her own LGBTQ identity, added that Rafiki has the potential to change hearts and minds in the conservative country. It could make “people understand that we have rights and that we are human beings,” she said.
“It was a beautiful movie,” Oriri added. “It tells a part of my life.”
Giving the stories of queer and trans Kenyans a public platform is arguably more critical than ever as the nation gears up for a pivotal LGBTQ rights ruling.
This year the High Court is set to issue its verdict on whether a colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality is legal under Kenya’s eight-year-old constitution. Being found guilty of same-sex intercourse under Section 162 of the Kenyan Penal Code could result in a sentence of up to 14 years behind bars.
The East African country would set a precedent should the court strike down Section 162: Kenya could become just one of a handful of municipalities on the continent to overturn anti-sodomy laws. South Africa repealed its ban in 1998,
At least 38 countries in Africa still make it a crime to be LGBTQ.
Kenya has already begun making major progress toward decriminalizing homosexuality. Earlier this year the Kenyan Court of Appeals ruled it’s unconstitutional to subject men suspected of having same-sex intercourse to forced anal examinations, a discredited practice which has been likened to torture.
Not everyone, though, has welcomed these steps toward full equality.
Dr. Ezekiel Mutua, who serves as CEO of the censorship board which initially banned Rafiki, called this week’s screenings a “tragedy.”
“Films and art in general should reflect the dominant values of the Kenyan people. Homosexuality is not our way of life and is against our values,” he claimed in a statement. “Anything that threaten or undermines the institution of family, which is derived from a union between two people of the opposite gender must be condemned.”
The chief censor, who is most infamously known for condemning a pair of “gay lions,” added with his trademark colorful flourish: “The attempt to normalise homosexuality is akin to air-conditioning hell.”
But after seeing the film, audience members responded that they didn’t see what all the “fuss” was about.
Emily, a 19-year-old who declined to give her full name to AFP, noted that Rafiki doesn’t feature on-screen intimacy between its female leads. She claimed the movie was being subjected to an unfair “double standard.”
“When you look at the content of certain American movies that are authorised in Kenya, and when you look at the very shy making of Rafiki, you really start wondering how they came to the decision to ban the movie,” Emily claimed. “I don’t understand all the fuss around that movie, and in general around homosexuality.”
“Aren’t there bigger problems than movies or other people’s sexuality?” she asked. “Homosexuality is not a disease.”
Others agreed the backlash from censors was overblown.
“This is the first Kenyan movie in history to get such international recognition,” claimed 32-year-old Mbithi Masya, who also lives in Nairobi. “It is crazy to think that it was forbidden in its own country. Every person has the right to love who he or she wants.”