Kenyan Director Defeats Censorship Case Against Acclaimed Lesbian Film

Wanuri Kahiu's acclaimed film 'Rafiki' was banned from being screened by Kenya courts, she fought back, and won— but her case is just the tipping point of the country's homophobia issues.

by Danielle Kwateng-Clark
Sep 21 2018, 9:04pm

Photo courtesy of Wanuri Kahiu

Kenya doesn't have the best history with LGBTQ rights—well, really, the continent, in general. Despite homophobic legislation, 2018 has proven to be pivotal for Kenyans in the LGBTQ community in getting policies enacted to create a less hostile environment.

In March, Kenya's Court of Appeal deemed it illegal to subject men to anal testing as a way to criminalize "same-sex sexual acts" because of a case taken on by the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Currently, the country awaits a landmark ruling that would decriminalize homosexuality in the penal code that hasn't been revised since 1976. Most recently, a ruling has made it illegal to censor depictions of gay and lesbian relationships on screen—at least for one film.

Wanuri Kahiu is at the forefront of the ruling because of her film Rafiki, an internationally acclaimed film about two young women from opposing political backgrounds who fall in love. While the film is receiving rave reviews around the world, in April, Kenyan courts banned the film for “promoting lesbianism."

Kahiu filed a lawsuit on September 11 against the ruling for encroaching on her freedom of speech and won on Friday, lifting the ban for seven days—until the end of the month—and with the stipulation that the film is only to be viewed by adults.

“If it had been a remorseful queer story, it would have been fine," Kahiu told The Hollywood Reporter about her film, which explores homosexuality, religion, and social norms. "The only film I can remember where there was a young African [LGBTQ] couple was actually a story about the morality of HIV/AIDS.”

As reported by BuzzFeed, Judge Wilfrida Okwany, who presided over the case said, “I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society that its moral foundation will be shaken by seeing such a film.”

In an opposing statement released by the Kenyan Film Classification Board (KFCB), it was made clear that the ban does not change people's hostility toward the gay community. "It is a sad moment and a great insult, not only to the film industry, but to all Kenyans who stand for morality, that a film that glorifies homosexuality is allowed to be the country's branding tools abroad," KFCB chief executive officer, Dr. Ezekiel Mutua wrote.

Adding, "The board firmly believes that films should reflect the dominant values of Kenyan people. Homosexuality does not qualify as such. The attempt to normalize homosexuality is there akin to air-conditioning hell."

Despite Mutua's sentiment, this win is still huge for the creative community in Kenya. Lifting the ban on Kahiu's film allows it to be considered for an Academy Award, as the rules specify that it needs to have been shown in the country where it was produced for seven consecutive days in order to be eligible.

“We realized that all of us were butting up against the same problem. Everyone expected us to tell important stories, and ‘important’ was defined as AIDS, famine, war, destruction, poverty," Kahiu told THR about how LGBTQ stories are typically told on the continent.

“Love is important, and joy is important, and the ability to be frivolous is important.”