TIFF 2018: The Afrobubblegum of Wanuri Kahiu’s “Rafiki”

The Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu broke into film culture in 2010 with a wonderful science-fiction short titled Pumzi. The 21-minute film, which is available to stream for free at Vimeo, is in English; its title translates from Swahili as “breath”.

8 years later, she has returned with her first feature film, Rafiki (which means “friend”), a story of teenage lesbian love. While the narrative beats of the movie are admittedly familiar, it looks and sounds stunning. What a gloriously celebratory mise-en-scène we find here. Bright colors and rich textures explode in the visual field: costumes and fabrics, jewelry and makeup, props and decor. What’s more, there is a visionary purpose behind these choices. Kahiu calls the aesthetic “Afrobubblegum”:

When I present my work somewhere, someone will always ask, “What’s so important about it? How does it deal with real African issues like war, poverty, devastation or AIDS?” And it doesn’t.

My work is about Nairobi pop bands that want to go to space or about seven-foot-tall robots that fall in love. It’s nothing incredibly important. It’s just fun, fierce and frivolous, as frivolous as bubble gum — “AfroBubbleGum.”

[Overtly political art about problem issues is] vital and important art, but it cannot be the only art that comes out of the continent. We have to tell more stories that are vibrant. [Otherwise we fall victim to] the danger of the single story …

Fun is political. If we had images of Africans who were vibrant and loving and thriving and living a beautiful, vibrant life. What would we think of ourselves then? Would we think that maybe we’re worthy of more happiness?

The story of this film’s coming into the world also has a dark side. Rafiki has been banned in Kenya for “promoting lesbianism,” since homosexuality is a criminal offense there. Ironically, the film was “unbanned” temporarily for a week by the state to render it eligible for the Oscars. Let us hope that its high visibility–including its status as the first Kenyan film to screen at Cannes–helps pave the way for challenging and overturning these laws.