She describes herself as fun, fierce and frivolous. And, truly, Wanuri Kahiu, a film producer, director and author, is the epitome of a stubborn spirit of grit and appetite for finesse in what she does. Kahiu goes for what she desires, setbacks and even controversy notwithstanding.
Her pursuit of film as a career occurred purely by happenstance, and Kahiu’s 22-year journey in the industry has sometimes been as stormy as it has been exciting.
Her earlier projects From a Whisper, Pumzi and For our Land were significantly successful, and won her several awards and multiple nominations.
But when she wrote and filmed Rafiki, a movie that features the life of two young women who fall in love, Kahiu, 38, had ventured into a hemisphere otherwise frowned upon, and set off a moral bomb.
The movie generated acclaim and attacks in equal measure, before Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) banned it in April in Kenya for depicting homosexual scenes.
Yet this din of criticism has not cowed the Masters of Fine Arts graduate of California University’s School of Theatre, Film and Television. Instead, Kahiu is pleased with her project, except that this is far from the kind of reaction she had hoped Rafiki would elicit at home.
“I was upset and disappointed, largely because I think Rafiki is a local story that was told here and should be seen here. The story will be playing in South Africa and other African countries. If other counties on the continent feel it’s okay to see the story, why not in Kenya?” she wonders.
With a no-holds-barred approach, Kahiu says that the ban was not based on merit, and that the film should have been given a better chance.
“Kenyans are mature enough, intelligent enough and worldly enough to be able to watch content and decide whether or not they like it,” she emphasises.
Kahiu is fiercely unapologetic about her nature of projects, saying that it is through having conversations on the most awkward subjects that a society can move forward.
“Stories of old were not always about topics that people were comfortable with. Nevertheless, these stories brought different people with different views on board to talk about issues that mattered to them,” she says, emphasising that that is the role film plays Internationally, the narrative has been different. Rafiki is one of the participating films in this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival that has been happening from July 19.
The film has been warmly received among festival enthusiasts across the world, scoring an impressive 6 out of 10 on IMDb ratings and garnering 83 per cent and 62 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, respectively.
Coming hard on the heels of the ban on Rafiki, Kahiu was nominated to the Oscars Academy, a fete she strongly believes was a validation of her work.
“As a woman, as a black woman and as an African woman, I am super proud and excited to be part of the committee, because this means we are being acknowledged. I don’t see this as a personal recognition but as a collective acknowledgement of African women’s contribution to film,” she argues.
According to her, the recognition could not have been more opportune, coming at a time when there is push for diverse representation of people in all industries, locally and internationally.
“We want to be able to see reflections of ourselves in films, behind cameras and even have our voice in committees that make critical decisions,” she says.
While admitting that Kenya is still a growing film industry, Kahiu underscores the importance of supporting different avenues of telling different stories.
“We are made up different types of people with different imaginations. There should be freedom to express these imaginations, because imagination doesn’t have boundaries,” she says.
“Homosexuals in Kenya and in Africa are an unheard and an underrepresented minority. In past generations, there were people who had same-sex relations. This is not a new concept in Africa,” she argues, adding: “Recently, we have become more like the West and started shutting people out because they are different from us, which is against the African spirit of oneness.”
Kahiu is, however, optimistic that in the years to come, Kenyans will be confident enough to boldly hold such conversations.
Kahiu laments that the film received a tough verdict even before the majority of Kenyans could watch it. Only festival attendees around the world have so far watched the movie, whose initial release is slated for September 26.
“We will continue to promote venues where the film is playing outside of Kenya. If Kenyans happen to be there at the same time, they can watch the film in those festivals.”
“I want people in Kenya to watch the film, more than anything. Or have the choice to watch or not to watch it,” she asserts. “We can’t wait for the film to come home,” she says.
Kahiu does not shy away from expressing her strong discontent with the way Africa is portrayed on the world stage, arguing that the continent has many compelling and exciting stories besides the grim tales on Female Genital Mutilation, poverty, corruption and political instability.
“I am a proponent of joy and hope, I believe that there should be more stories about joy and hope for us, so that we are able to appreciate other cultures, to inspire us to adopt other people’s fashion, to travel across the continent and also to encourage other people to visit our continent,” she says.
Rather than looking westwards for cultural inspiration, Africans should be more pan-African in their cultural approach, “by appreciating each other as a continent” because “it is important to show ourselves as people who want to connect, who want to be joyful and loving within the continent, people united by one land," she notes.
Kahiu mobilises other African artists to fearlessly use their various genres of art “to tell more vibrant stories” and to address critical social issues such as Homosexuality, which is the chief thematic issue explored in Rafiki.
NO LIMIT TO ART
“Film is about telling all types of stories because as a continent we are an array of different types of people. That is why I wrote a film about terrorism, and another one on a future without water. That is also why I made a movie about Wangari Mathai, and wrote Rafiki, a story about two girls who have fallen in love. There are still many films to take, and I’m just one person,” she argues. “There can never be enough creation or too much art”.
“America as an industry runs from all the different types of films that it makes. Nollywood and Bollywood thrive in the same manner. There are established film industries around the world and even in the global south that have proved that content can uplift communities, contribute to their GDP and change countries.”
According to her, the film industry in West Africa has morphed into the multi-billion dollar business it is today because of corporate support.
“The third largest income earner for Nigeria is film. If Nigerians are able to significantly contribute to their GDP by creating film content, we should be able to do that as well,” she argues.
She further notes that consumers are also an important element in the equation with a critical role to play.
“When we pay monthly subscriptions to watch movies on Netflix, for instance, this makes us part of the relationship – the same way taxpayers expect services from the government. If we can prove as filmmakers that film is a solid business model, which it is, we should be able to attract more investment from the private sector,” Kahiu says.
Besides Kahiu’s pursuit for modern socialisation, she firmly believes in and advocates for African futurism, a type of speculative fiction that includes science fiction, fantasy, mythical stories, legends and origin stories that have originated from the continent. But how does this concept affect laymen?
“African futurism means talking about Africa in past, present and in future terms. Representing the continent in mythical ways, traditional spiritual ways and other ways that most people almost don’t believe exist” she says.
“There are many ways of talking about our experiences as Africans, and if we lean on our traditions and beliefs as Africans, this will be one way of telling new stories about ourselves,” she observes.
The pursuit of happiness and joy from what one does is the only way be a worthy contributor to the society, she says.
“If you are unhappy about something, or if it is repressive, it becomes difficult to enjoy it,” she adds.