Kenyan high court lifts ban on acclaimed LGBTQ film 'Rafiki'

A Kenyan high court on Friday lifted its ban on Rafiki, a film with an uplifting lesbian romantic storyline, clearing the path for the film to be the country's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Academy Awards. 

High Court Justice Wilfrida Okwany temporarily lifted the restriction for just seven days, allowing Rafiki to be screened for “willing adults.” In her ruling, Okwany said, “I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society that its moral foundation will be shaken by seeing such a film.” She contextualized her concern over the ban as being part of a larger epidemic against free speech in Kenya.

Rafiki, directed by Wanuri Kahiu, who was born in Nairobi and studied producing and directing at UCLA’s school of theatre, was banned by Kenya's Film and Classification Board (KFCB) back in April due to its central lesbian romance. Just afterward, the film made its debut to critical acclaim in May at the Cannes Film Festival. It gained further steam earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, where GLAAD first screened it. Tickets are on sale now for Kenyan audiences to finally go and see Rafiki

“Wanuri Kahiu has created a compelling and universal story which provides hope that all Kenyans one day will be free to live openly and celebrate the person they love," said GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis about the film. "The story of Rafiki is needed, not only to move more Kenyans to accept LGBTQ people but also, to shine a light on the truly unjust nature of criminalization laws against LGBTQ people in Kenya and other countries. The decision to screen the film in Kenya - enabling it to be considered as among the country’s best by the Academy Awards — is an important signal to the world that LGBTQ Kenyans will never be silenced.”

By allowing the film to play for seven days in theaters in Kenya, it will qualify to meet the Sept. 30th theatrical run deadline required by foreign films to be in considered in the running for a nomination at the 2019 Academy Awards. 

Kahiu was in an airport in France, en route to Los Angeles to further promote the film, when she learned the news about the stay on the ban.

Rafiki is a love story between two young women (played by newcomers Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva) in a society that still bans homosexuality. The film is saturated with joy, heartbreak, and a richly effervescent cinematography that showcases Kahiu's native Nairobi in all its vibrancy.

When Kena and Ziki first lock eyes, it's a genuine coup de foudre despite the fact their families are political rivals. The young women grow close, but as they are not able to show their attraction in public — or even to their relatives and friends — they are forced to sneak small moments in private. Together they create their own world, vividly evoked through Kahiu's filmic eye, where their love isn't anything other than an expression of their commitment to each other. The space they create, however, isn't immune to the biases of the outside world.