Kenyan filmmaker and director Peter Murimi is known for tackling hard-hitting social issues through documentaries.
Murimi won the 2004 CNN Africa Journalist of the Year for Walk to Freedom, a docu-film about female genital mutilation in Kenya. A BBC Africa News feature about suicide among Kenyan men earned him the 2019 Rory Peck award. He has filmed features for Al Jazeera, PBS, the United Nations and other international organisations.
But his 2020 documentary I Am Samuel, about a gay couple in Kenya, has been banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB).
“When I see a problem, I want to shine a light on it and my motivation was to have a constructive dialogue about LGBTQ rights,” says Murimi.
Among other things, KFCB censured the movie for violating Kenya’s Constitution which outlaws same-sex relations, with the consequences of a prison term of up to 14 years.
The filmmaker was expected to earn a university degree and marry a girl from his home town.
Instead, he dropped out of Kenyatta University, worked for two years as a waiter before enrolling for a TV production diploma course at the Mohamed Amin Foundation in 2002. Initially, he was not passionate about media but just wanted “to run away from the village, but from the first day I was there I really enjoyed it.”
He acknowledges the role of film boards in classifying content but faults KFCB for adding restrictions and trying to control authorship.
Murimi’s interest in the LGBTQ community started after hearing the difficult story of a close acquaintance coming out to their family about their sexual orientation. He began looking for a real story about a gay African that he could document.
Murimi’s vision was to film an optimistic story with an authentic relationship. “I wanted a representative film that most queer men can identify with, of a poor gay man because the middle class are the minority.”
The one-hour documentary chronicles the true story of Samuel, raised in rural Western Kenya. It was filmed over five years because it took Murimi a long time to build trust with various people.
A mutual friend introduced him to Samuel and, to his surprise, the latter bought into the film idea quickly.
Samuel, who declined my request for an interview, revealed to Murimi his identity struggles as a teenager.
“He couldn’t share with anyone, he couldn’t talk about it, and he went into depression and almost took his life,” said Murimi.
Keeping to the African essence of the feature, the entire documentary is in Swahili with English subtitles. Murimi crafted an intimate family portrait “that people can connect with, empathise, and learn from”.
Since the completion of the project, Samuel and his partner have left Kenya and live overseas, an eventuality that Murimi’s team planned for because of homophobia and the threat of violence.
“They’ve had to move houses and been beaten up a few times, so it would have been irresponsible for them to be in Kenya.”
In the documentary, Murimi reviews other challenges common to men, the toxic masculinity as he calls it, “where men are told the path they should follow and the pressures with that”.
Other topics Murimi reviews in I Am Samuel include youth unemployment, inability to access tertiary education and rural-urban migration, all complexities linked to poverty.
“Those issues connect us more to Samuel’s life and narrative,” says Murimi, who has lived in the UK since 2017.