Rafiki is the first Kenyan film invited to premiere at Cannes

A scene from Rafiki

SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: Banned from its country, Rafiki – a film that tells the love story of two women – is the first Kenyan feature film to be invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France.

Adapted for the big screen by Kenyan director-author Wanuri Kahiu and South African writer-director Jenna Bass, with Kahiu directing, Rafiki (‘Friend’ in Swahili) is based on the Caine Prize-winning short story Jambula Tree by Ugandan author, Monica Arac de Nyeko.

Producer of the film Steven Markovitz comments: “It is a beautiful love story and we don’t see many of those stories being made in Africa. I’m not talking about romantic comedies. I had worked with Wanuri before on her science fiction short film Pumzi (Sundance), and I believed in her as a talented director. I approached her with the view to develop African literature into film, and she came back to me with Monica Arac de Nyeko’s Jambula Tree.”

Markovitz  is a South African film and television producer, founder and owner of Big World Cinema – a film production company based in Cape Town – who co-produced the recent award-winning documentary Winnie, which also stirred much controversy. “I look for originality and a unique voice or point of view,” he comments. “I also look for material that challenges the dominant narrative of Africa in general and the African country in particular. I also look to work with people who I like and that I feel we could have a mutually respectful working relationship.”

Markovitz shares that after struggling to secure financing from South Africa and Kenya, he decided to look to other countries. The film is therefore a co-production between Kenya, South Africa, France, Lebanon, Norway, Holland, Germany and USA. However, in addition to Kahiu and Bass, the remainder of the film crew are predominantly Kenyan, with a few South Africans.

“There are now eight countries involved! It took seven years to make this film, I went all over the world looking for finance, and we picked up pockets of money and wonderful co-producers along the way… The film is a co-production between Kenya, South Africa, France, Lebanon, Norway, Holland, Germany and USA.”

Rafiki made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival on 9 May 2018. Markovitz confirms that they have already signed with two sales agents, Orange Studios and MPM Premium, to distribute the film internationally. He is hopeful that the film will sell to other territories after its Cannes showcase.

“The film is a lesbian love story; we hope the film will contribute to bringing these stories out of the shadows in Africa. For too often officialdom have tried to suppress these stories, but we know they are part of our society and therefore should be reflected in the cinema we make and watch,” he expressed.

Sadly, Rafiki is currently banned for distribution, exhibition or broadcast in Kenya. The film’s ban was announced in a statement by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KCFB), for its “homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya, contrary to the law.”

So far, Markovitz and his team have been very vocal in the media regarding their stand against the banning of Rafiki and will be challenging the ban through the appeal process.

“We are very disappointed about the banning of the film in Kenya. We believe artists should have freedom of expression to reflect society through our cinema. We will not take this banning lying down and will be announcing our plans in this regard soon,” he concluded.


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Gezzy S Sibisi
Gezzy S. Sibisi is a senior journalist at Screen Africa. She is experienced in print, broadcast and digital media. Her portfolio of work includes working as a lifestyle reporter as well as contributing business and education articles to The Times, Sowetan, and Daily Dispatch publications. As a freelancer, she has worked on content development for corporate newsletters, community newspapers, blogs and educational websites.


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