The Kenyan government has banned a film that recently made history as the first Kenyan-made film to premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival because it centers on an LGBT love story, which the government says is a “clear intent to promote lesbianism.”
The film, titled Rafiki, was directed by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu, and tells the story of Kena and Ziki, two “good Kenyan girls” who long for something more than becoming good Kenyan wives, according to the synopsis on Kahiu’s website.
“Despite the political rivalry between their families, the girls resist and remain close friends, supporting each other to pursue their dreams in a conservative society,” the synopsis reads. “When love blossoms between them, the two girls will be forced to choose between happiness and safety.” Kahiu has said that the film was inspired by Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story Jambula Tree.
Kahiu broke the news Friday morning on Twitter, saying she was “incredibly sorry” that the film had been banned in Kenya.
“We believe adult Kenyans are mature and discerning enough to watch local content but their right has been denied,” she wrote.
Many people were surprised at the Kenya Film Classification Board’s decision because less than two weeks before their announcement of the ban, Ezekiel Mutua, the organization’s CEO, publicly praised Kahiu when Rafiki was selected to screen at Cannes, which is due to begin on May 8.
In an interview with a local radio station April 17, Mutua called Kahiu “one of the greatest Kenyans that we have in the film industry."
“Cannes is big,” Mutua said, adding that, “other than the Oscars, Cannes is the best.”
But Friday morning, he issued a statement condemning the film for its LGBT themes and restricting it from being shown or distributed anywhere in Kenya.
“Indeed, it is our considered view that the moral of the story in the film is to legitimize lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the board’s content classification guidelines and the constitution of Kenya.” the statement read.
The board also accused Kahiu and her production team of altering the script they submitted earlier this month without permission, noting that the “scenes depicting the leads actors as lesbians in the film were absent.”
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Kahiu for comment.
“We wish to emphasize the fact that films made in Kenya for public consumption MUST reflect and respect the dominant values of the Kenyan society,” the statement continued. “Any attempt to introduce and normalize homosexuality in Kenya flies in the face of the law and the constitution must be resisted. Hare-brained schemes by foreigners funding film producers in Kenya to promote homosexuality in the name of equality and inclusion will be exposed and strongly resisted.”
Rafiki was produced by Kahiu’s own company, Afro Bubble Gum, as well as Big World Cinema, which is based in South Africa. It also received funding from the European Union and film funds from France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
People on Twitter lashed out against Mutua’s decision.
Some referenced another film about the Kenyan LGBT community, Stories of Our Lives, which is also banned in the country:
The Kenyan Constitution does not criminalize homosexuality, but according to the nation’s penal code, having “carnal knowledge of another person against the order of nature” is a felony punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Human rights attorneys and LGBT activists across Kenya are currently urging the high court to abolish those articles of Kenya’s penal code, which they argue are being used to discriminate and justify violence against people who identify as, or who are perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
Last month, Kenya’s Court of Appeals ruled it unconstitutional to force people to undergo anal examinations in order to determine their sexuality. The decision was borne out of a case from 2015 in which two young men were arrested on suspicion of being gay and were made to endure the invasive and humiliating examination.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta recently weighed in on LGBT rights in a CNN interview, saying that related issues were “not of any major importance” in Kenya, and that the discussion around it was not one of human rights, but of culture.
“This is an issue that the people of Kenya themselves who have bestowed upon themselves a constitution, after several years, have clearly stated that this is not a subject that they are willing to engage in at this time and moment,” he said.