In “Rafiki,” a pair of young women in a small town fall in love, then face the repercussions of an oppressive community unwilling to permit their romance. The star-crossed plight of Kena (Samantha Muatsia) and Zika (Sheila Munyiva) is familiar, but it’s never been done in Kenya, and that imbues this slight, endearing feature with a progressive context. Banned in its native country ahead of its Cannes premiere, Wanuri Kahiu’s sophomore feature is just good enough to give its modest intentions a historic purpose, bringing fresh context to an old formula while hitting the expected emotional beats.
At a concise 82 minutes, “Rafiki” uses a traditional narrative to play up the textures of its setting. Based on the short story “Jambala Tree,” the movie lingers in the small, dusty village where Kena, a genial woman with a determined gaze, cruises around town on her skateboard. She spends most of her time hanging at a scrappy outdoor cafe with her pal Blacksta (Neville Misati), who can’t seem to comprehend why his friend won’t just marry him and settle down. That’s the first indication that even as Kena may understand her own sexuality, it’s a reality that others in her orbit refuse to comprehend. As church scenes that bring together the entire community make clear, religion leads the day; individual desire is sidelined. If Kena dates anyone, she’ll face serious repercussions.
When Kena first eyes Zika (Sheila Munyiva), a plucky, ostentatious local who takes to engaging in coordinated dance moves with her overconfident friends around town, the pair see each other as immediate enemies: Zika’s father is the frontrunner for the Member of County Assembly, a powerful political position that Kena’s own father, storekeeper John (Jimmy Gathu) is running for as well. With the faces of both men plastered on campaign posters around town, their values and expectations loom above the women like unspoken rules. But after a few passive-aggressive showdowns, Zika makes the effort to engage Kena socially, and it doesn’t take long for the women to recognize that their fiery exchanges indicate genuine chemistry.
They find common ground in their mutual desire to get out, and as they engage in tender exchanges on rooftops that overlook bland buildings. These heretofore undiscovered actresses deepen the material with authentic yearning that transcends the material’s limitations, with chemistry that is both believable and at odds with their existence. Only in each other’s company do they find the words to express their frustrations.
“I wish we could go to a place where we could feel real,” Zika says, and when Kena tries that line out on Blacksta to deaf ears, she realizes she’s clearly found her match in another woman. It’s a wise moment in a movie defined by gentle observations more than its predictable storyline, which starts to drag once the town catches on to Kena and Zika’s romance and the standard backlash that follows.
Shot on a shoestring budget, “Rafiki” shows its rough edges in the more dramatic crowd scenes and its barebones cast, but it mines intrigue in the women’s attempts to elucidate their allegiances to each other versus family expectations. Though Kena hopes to attend nursing school or possibly become a doctor, her biggest fear is that she might wind up “just staying at home doing typical Kenyan things.” This observations speaks directly to her relationship to her father, a well-intentioned merchant who wants to effect change, and clearly wants to improve the community even as he remains tied to local expectations. His own moral quandary, as Kena’s attraction to Zika leads to devastating problems, heightens the movie’s stakes and establishes some of the more emotionally resonant scenes.
Once the women’s relationship takes shape, “Rafiki” takes its development for granted. Their sexual chemistry unfolds with only a few passing shots of hands and snippets of moaning, and their comeuppance arrives with barely enough time for the attraction to crystallize. The Shakespearean dilemma has a schematic quality, as if conceived in reverse, filling in character details around a central premise we’ve seen countless times before. But Muatsia, with her tough gaze and somber asides, maintains a credibility that rescues the movie from cliché. By telling an old story of impossible love, “Rafiki” renews its purpose.
“Rafiki” premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. It is currently seeking distribution.