• In 2018, Wanuri Kahiu’s film Rafiki was banned in Kenya for ‘legitimizing homosexuality’.
  • The filmmaker is suing the Kenya Film Classification Board for the right to show it.
  • Rafiki made history as the first Kenyan film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

Wanuri Kahiu has a simple message for film audiences around the world to boost diversity on our screens: buy tickets.

“I challenge you to go out and watch work of people you want to see – if you want to see more female-directed films, buy tickets.

“Do it for the data, because it’s the data that continues to feed the industries that allow us to continue to make work.”

Kahiu is a 40-year-old Kenyan filmmaker and part of part of AFROBUBBLEGUM, a collective of African artists whose ambition is to create “fun, frivolous and fierce” work.

In 2018, she made a film called Rafiki (“friend” in Swahili), which tells a love story between two teenage girls in Nairobi.

It was banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board because it was seen as “legitimizing homosexuality” – which is still illegal in Kenya.

Less than a month later, it made history as the first Kenyan film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

Rafiki director Wanuri Kahiu (right) and cast members.
Rafiki director Wanuri Kahiu and cast members Sheila Munyiva and Samantha Mugatsia in Cannes.
Image: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

“What surprised me the most about the ban was the reason the board gave,” she said at a BetaZone session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos this year.

“They said it was not remorseful enough. They said if I changed the ending and made it more remorseful, they would give me a rating because they didn't like the idea of normalizing the LGBTQ community in Kenya.”

It meant her own parents couldn’t see her film.

“They only heard an officer of the government say that my work was so absurd, so vile, that no voting adult in Kenya could see it. Even though they wanted to be able to advocate and support it, they couldn't.”

But it also meant she was pitted against her own government.

“It makes you feel like your work is somehow unpatriotic because they're saying that it cannot be seen in your own home country. And it goes against the national norms and values of the country, which I don't believe to be so.”

Role models

Kahiu, named one of TIME’s 100 Next in 2019, says it’s hard for LGBTQ people in Kenya to find role models, mentors, people to look up to.

“So you find people who are dissidents, fighting on the outskirts."

For two years, she has been fighting for the film to be seen in Kenya – and is suing the film board for the infringement of constitutional rights to freedom of expression.

In 2018, the ban was lifted for just seven days, as part of the lawsuit, so Rafiki could be shown in cinemas to make it eligible for the Oscars.

“Freedom of expression is not a luxury. It is a freedom. When I voted for our Constitution on 4 August, 2010, I did it knowing that my rights as a woman will be protected. And I did it as an artist knowing that my rights for freedom of expression were enshrined in the constitution and our bill of rights.

“It says, ‘Every person has an obligation to respect, uphold and defend the Constitution’. So when our film was banned, we took the Film Classification Board to court. And we sued them for rights to freedom of expression. We're still in court now.”

When the ban was lifted for just seven days, it gave a voice to the LGBTQ community.

“They were able to see reflections of themselves. They were able to feel valid. They were able to feel seen; they were able to have voices.

“But it also meant that my family, who were unable to defend me at the beginning, could now see the work I had made.”

She says censorship persists around the world in more subtle forms – it could be economic censorship where a film studio argues no one wants to see a woman, transgender or black character as the lead.

So when cinemas are safe to reopen worldwide, buy the tickets for those films, she urges.

“I'm not saying you have to see the film. I'm just saying you have to buy the tickets. Do it for the data and do it for us because we are doing our part.

“But I challenge you to think what are you doing? What is your part towards the cause of freedom of expression?”