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Non-Review Review: Rafiki

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Rafiki is a sweet and tender love story, and well worth seeking out.

Writer and director Wanuri Kahiu is part of an artistic movement that brands itself “Afrobubblegum.” A collective of artists working together to redefine what Africa looks and feels like on screen, the “Afrobubblegum” movement is dedicated to breaking away from many of the clichés and conventions associated with continent to provide a much broader perspective of twenty-first century Africe. Rafiki is very much a part of that movement. It is a story of teen love, of the simmering attraction between two young women on the cusp of adulthood within a reactionary society that would crush such love underneath its heel. It’s a familiar set-up, evoking any number of coming-of-age same-sex love stories, the obvious (and perhaps lazy) comparison being Moonlight.

Rafiki is a fairly conventional narrative in these in terms. Indeed, the audience has a fairly good idea of where the film is going from the opening scenes that establish the realities with which Kena lives before also suggesting her strong attraction to Ziki. However, Rafiki is elevated by a number of factors. Most obviously, there are the winsome performances from young leads Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva, who bring a very naturalistic vulnerability to their roles. However, there’s also the sheer charm of the script and the direction, which beautifully captures the feeling of young love from moment to moment, without recourse to exposition or purple prose or heavy-handed soliloquies. Rafiki feels like a movie that knows love, in a very personal and intimate way.

Rafiki is perhaps a little unpolished around the edges, but works well where it matters. It is a movie that understands the trepidation, the excitement, the longing, the fear, the passion, and the power of what it is to want another person, even (and especially) when there are so many reasons not to. There is a simple and convincing beauty in that.

Rafiki has an infectious energy. It’s put together remarkably well. Indeed, the “Afrobubblegum” descriptor is not just a catchy title or a clever logo, it also captures a lot of the texture and feel of Rafiki. The film has an endearing and disarming pop sensibility to it. The movie pulses in rhythm from the opening credits, a series of animated titlecards juxtaposed with a walking (well, running!) tour of the local area set against an irresistible poppy beat. This opening sequence is not necessarily important in terms of plot or character; although the film comes to develop its own unique geography over its runtime, little of it is established here. Instead, it is very effective at establishing tone.

There is a tendency to build young love stories (especially young gay love stories) around loss and tragedy. There are any number of explanations for this trend, although perhaps the most well-meaning and innocuous is the belief that a darker story is inherently a more worthy story. This explains why so many of the stories about queer characters in the modern era are framed as stories of trauma and suffering; Brokeback Mountain or Boys Don’t Cry or even Boy Erased. Though there are undoubtedly tragic elements within Rafiki, and though the story does not shy away from the horrific realities of what it is like to be gay in Kenya, it is not a film that wallows in suffering and angst.

So much of Rafiki is given over to the joy of simply living; the thrill of riding a scooter around town, the beauty of a picnic on a rooftop, the quiet intimacy of a small family-run store. Directory of photography Christopher Wessels saturates the film with colours, as befitting the culture and the weather of the region. Rafiki unfolds in Kenya during what looks to be summer, so the film is practically glowing. Rich yellows and greens and browns populate the frame. Even in the conservative Christian church that Kena attends is shaded a deep purple. Similarly, Kahiu fills the soundtrack with bubbly and charming contemporary African pop; all songs are performed by women, and all but one of those women is Kenyan. The result is a film that feels vibrant and alive.

That enthusiasm carries over to the movie’s central love affair. Kahiu got very lucky in the casting of Mugatsia and Munyiva, both of whom share an easy chemistry and a capacity for introspection that resonates with any viewer who has ever been a teenager lost in their own thoughts. In particular, Mugatsia very effectively communicates her character’s anxieties and desires, often without the crutch of dialogue to articulate those simmering emotions. However, credit also belongs to Kahiu as a director. There is a gentleness and a tenderness to the scenes that Mugatsia and Munyiva share, a quality that seems lived-in and genuine.

The camera captures the growing intimacy between the two characters without ever seeming voyeuristic or exploitative. The rhythms and beats of the courtship are well observed and well-captured – the hand inching closer to the object of affection, wanting to touch yet afraid of being caught touching; the lips that move slowly closer, wanting not just to kiss but also to be kissed back. There is an innocence in this flirtation that exists even beyond the fear of breaking a cultural taboo. There is a more universal sentiment at play here, the candor and vulnerability of forbidden first love. Rafiki is a movie that does not depict that love so much as it feels it, so much as it allows that love to flow through it.

There are some minor problems. While Kahiu perfectly replicates the mood and the feeling of young love, the technique is occasionally imperfect. This is most obvious during the inevitable sequence in which the local community discovers this forbidden romance, which is a traumatic and visceral experience. The handheld camera shakes and rocks, capturing the sensation of an audience thrown off-balance. However, the framing of these shaky shots makes it clear that the audience is being shaken to a much greater degree than any of the characters. (It is akin to the way in which Star Trek would simulate the shaking of the ship by shaking the camera and asking the actors to throw themselves around the set.) It is disorienting, and not in the desired manner.

Similarly, conversations between the two leads occasionally play voiceover discussions over still shots of the pair being silent. This is a familiar and effective way to communicate intimacy, and can be very effective if employed effectively. (It helps to create a sense of the passage of time, by allowing the audience to experience two moments in one through the sound and the image; Terrance Malick uses it very well in Tree of Life.) However, these sequences are intercut with moments of conversation in the same space with the actors in the same position, which jars slightly. It is mildly distracting, the film failing to clearly distinguish between the two different moments being overlaid.

Still, these are minor complaints. Rafiki gets the important things right, the things that are much harder to quantify or measure. It’s a beautiful film, and one well worth seeking out.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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