Behind the scenes of ‘Rafiki’ at Cannes

Saturday May 26 2018

Kenyan actress Samantha Mugatsia (left) and

Kenyan actress Samantha Mugatsia (left) and Kenyan actress Sheila Munyiva pose on May 9, 2018 during a photocall for the film "Rafiki" during the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France. AFP PHOTO | LOIC VENANCE 

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We got stopped on the road, people were saying thank you, everyone resonated with the film and said it was beautiful,” says Samantha Mugatsia, who plays Kena, one of the two lead characters in the Kenyan film Rakifi that was showcased at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in France in May.

Rafiki – loosely based on the novella Jambula Tree by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko – is about a relationship between two young women in a country where homosexuality is illegal, and society is yet to come to terms with the existence of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, queers, transgenders and intersex people, commonly known as the LGBQTI community.

Rakifi, which means friend in Swahili, is banned in Kenya where it was made, and ironically when it had already been accepted for Cannes — the second most important film festival after the Oscars.

It received rave reviews and got a standing ovation that lasted 10 minutes. Actress Cate Blanchett was moved to tears by the movie and her assistant had to escort her out to have her make-up redone.

“It’s a story that can make people cry because it brings out the vulnerability in everyone,” says Mugatsia.

I met Mugatsia, tall, lanky and soft-spoken, in Westlands in Nairobi. She had just returned from Cannes, and her first observation to me was that the film festival was a world away from Nairobi.


Here there are no red carpets, no one recognising and stopping her on the streets for pictures or commenting on the film. Nairobi is a different reality. Indeed, it is.

The film is banned in Kenya despite having been given the go-ahead to proceed to full production by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB). The board banned the film even after its writer and producer Wanuri Kahiu kept the board updated.

On April 17, Eziekiel Mutua, KFCB’s chief executive went live on a local radio station supporting the film. Ten days later on April 27, Rafiki was banned.

Mutua wanted the ending of the film to be changed to the two main characters showing remorse for being in a same-sex relation, which the director Kahiu refused to do. She insisted on a happy ending because she wanted to make a happy film.

Being discovered

Mugatsia, born in 1992 in Nairobi, is a drummer with a local band, the Yellow Machine. She’s a final year student of law at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi.

She however put her studies on hold to do the film, much to her mother’s chagrin. “She has to complete her studies,” says her mother Grace Gitau. “She’s nearly done anyway.”

It was serendipity that got Mugatsia the role of Kena, one of the two main characters.

“I was attending an artists’ pop-in in Westlands sometime in November 2016. My friend Musa Omusi, the creator of the fashion brand Bongo Sawa (like minds) had invited me.

“I was introduced to Kahiu of Afro Bubble Gum Films. The following day, she sent me a text message after she got my mobile phone number from a friend of mine.

“She explained that she was working on a film script and she would like to send it to me. I was hesitant at first because l have never acted. But she sent it anyway. l fell in love with the story.

As it happened, Mugatsia was the last to be cast.

Making ‘Rafiki’

“Kahiu is amazing,” says Mugatsia. “She was inspired by the Jambula Tree and it took her seven years to write the script and then four years to cast. Can you imagine just having one thing on your mind?’

“It took us months of acting lessons to get exactly Kahiu was looking for.

“Acting is feeling,” adds Mugatsia. It was the mantra drummed into them by the acting coach Elizabeth Hesemans from the Netherlands. “In contrast, most Kenyan actors are not trained,” says Mugatsia.

“In Kenya, if you look the part, you are given the script to cram because most Kenyan films and TV series have limited production time and budget. A whole season can be shot in two weeks. It’s crazy.’’

“For Rafiki, we went through rigorous training, three months before and during the filming. Some of the methods used in preparation were mirror exercises and mentally living the character.

Ziki and Kena's in the film Rafiki. PHOTO |

Ziki and Kena's in the film Rafiki. PHOTO | COURTESY

“The intensity seen in the film’s scenes came from all this training. The characters came to life before we even went on set. The whole approach of sensuality is shown through touch and aesthetics; kissing was just an extra bit of the acting and not the actual focus,” says Mugatsia.

When Rafiki was finally screened at Cannes, it was the first time Mugatsia and the other actors were watching it. “I remember it happening in a flash. I was crying,” she says.

“It was a beautiful moment because Kahiu was the first Kenyan woman from East Africa to present her film at the festival and also the only African woman director this year.

The 84-minute film, was a labour of love and Kahiu’s strong determination attracted eight sponsors from abroad who financed the production.

When it was finally time for Cannes, there was no money.

Fashion designer Ann McCreath of Kiko Romeo stepped in as a fundraiser and provided the glamorous outfits for some events, including the blue suit worn by Mugatsia, a hand-painted silk by Sudanese artist El Tayeb.

For the red carpet event, Kahiu, Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva were dressed by 22-year-old Sami Nouri, previously from the House of Givenchy.

“Cannes is expensive and you have to pay your bills. But it was surreal. I got to see Penelope Cruz, Lupita Nyongo… but it’s hectic, with back-to-back interviews. And now Sheila Munyiva, who plays the character of Ziki, is already on Vogue UK edition in the best beauty looks and make up shoot.”

After Cannes

Soon after Cannes, Kahiu signed up with the Gotham Group, a top Hollywood management and production company.

In media interviews, she said; “Gotham is a management company, its job is to pair me with producers or production houses who may be interested in me working with them. It’s a doorway into Hollywood at the very least and hopefully into the rest of the international world.

“It means us making stories, African stories, Kenyan stories, and giving them a bigger platform. That’s what l hope to continue with Afro Bubble Gum Art.”

Kahiu says her company is all about telling stories that are fun, fierce and frivolous.

“Hopefully,” she says, “it will help other people in the industry rise because it’s hard to do it by yourself.”

Kahiu’s films have been seen in more than 100 film festivals around the world and are available online.

Kahiu believes in the power of the film medium. She chairs the SAFE Foundation based in Kenya, which produces films to raise awareness on issues like HIV, radicalisation and female genital mutilation.


Actress Samantha Mugatsia poses as she arrives

Actress Samantha Mugatsia poses as she arrives on May 9, 2018 for the screening of the film "Rafiki" at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France. AFP PHOTO | ALBERTO PIZZOLI


Tell us more about the LGBQTI community in Kenya?

It’s a beautiful community. And very resilient, always standing together.

In Kenya, the community has come together to fight in court for the repeal of a section of the Constitution, Article 162 (2), that deems that not everyone is equal. Yet we have the Bill of Rights that says that everyone is equal.

So in Kenya we have a law whose implementation is weak.

What if someone asked you about your sexual orientation?

I choose not to talk about my personal life. Everybody must be accepted for what they are.

Are you religious?

I’m spiritual, l pray.

What do you see yourself doing in the near future?

I’m a musician, so l want to grow. If l get great movie scripts like Rafiki, l will definitely act.

What is your take on the Kenyan film industry?

Hopefully Rafiki will encourage more filmmakers to make happy films in Kenya. Most non-governmental organisations in Kenya want to provide financial support for films showing the dark and dull side of Africa, one that is full of pain and disease.

One even wanted a rape scene in Rafiki, and for the scene to be the focal point of the film.

We also need actors to be properly trained to solidify the artistic presence. And we need more art and more love. That is the only thing that will get us through Kenya’s current social swamp.