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Why Wanuri Kahiu’s lesbian romance film was banned in Kenya

Why Wanuri Kahiu’s lesbian romance film was banned in Kenya

Why Wanuri Kahiu’s lesbian romance film was banned in Kenya

Wanuri Kahiu’s role model is an African feminist icon who dedicated her life to planting trees — and fighting the Kenyan authorities.

“She was a woman who was coming up against the government and being spoken about in the most horrific ways,” Kahiu said of environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who launched the Green Belt movement before becoming the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. “And she just wanted to plant trees.”

Swap “trees” for “films” and Kahiu could be talking about her own life.

The 39-year-old, whose works deal with themes often considered controversial in Kenya, including LGBTQ rights and feminism, is one of Africa’s most powerful filmmakers. Her mission to create art on African terms has given rise to what she calls “Afrobubblegum,” a genre that aims to tell stories of black joy, which Kahiu says has nothing to do with politics.

But over the past year, avoiding politics has become increasingly tricky. Kahiu is currently suing her country’s government, after it banned her 2018 film “Rafiki” — which later became the first Kenyan movie to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival in the event’s 70-plus-year history. The Kenyan Film Classification Board (KFCB) said the film was restricted “due (to) its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.”

Actress Samantha Mugatsia, director Wanuri Kahiu and  actress Sheila Munyiva pose as they arrive on May 9, 2018 for the screening of the film "Rafiki" at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival.

Actress Samantha Mugatsia, director Wanuri Kahiu and actress Sheila Munyiva pose as they arrive on May 9, 2018 for the screening of the film “Rafiki” at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Credit: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

“Rafiki,” set in Nairobi, is the tender, hopeful story of two young women falling in love, and it tackles some of the most sensitive issues facing Kenyan society and politics today.

In Kenya, gay sex is against the law and is punishable by up to 14 years in jail. An upcoming ruling on whether to repeal the law, expected on May 24, has divided the conservative, Christian country. After “Rafiki” was banned in April 2018, Kahiu said she saw no option but to sue the KFCB on constitutional grounds. She said KFCB’s ban violated her right to free speech guaranteed in the Kenyan constitution.

Her lawsuit is pending — the next hearing is due in June — meaning much of Kenya still hasn’t seen the film. But the case has won Kahiu international notoriety and, abroad, her career is soaring. She recently landed a gig directing a new sci-fi series for Amazon, as well as an upcoming Reese Witherspoon production featuring Millie Bobby Brown of “Stranger Things.”

Kahiu now shares an agent with Oscar-winning “Black Panther” actress, Lupita Nyong’o. But her focus remains fixed on Kenya.

“I will continue fighting this case because I know what it means,” Kahiu said. “Governments think, ‘We have the authority to silence; we will not talk about rape because it doesn’t exist. We will not talk about violence against women.’

“Freedom of speech has far-reaching consequences. I think we should all be concerned.”

Fun, fierce and frivolous

Kahiu wanted to make films from age 16, after she stumbled onto the TV set of one of her mother’s contacts in Nairobi. Her studies in business, and then film, took Kahiu to the UK and America, but she always knew she was coming home to make movies. “Always,” Kahiu repeated, emphatically.

Her early films can seem disparate. They range from “Pumzi,” a post-apocalyptic reimagining of Africa 35 years after World War II, to “From A Whisper,” which tells a story of forgiveness after the 1998 US embassy bombing in Nairobi. Her 2009 documentary “For Our Land” celebrated the filmmaker’s feminist hero and saw Kahiu finally able to meet and work with tenacious tree-planter Maathai.

But Kahiu later realized that her films featured common themes of hope and happiness. In 2015, she coined the term Afrobubblegum, a genre she sums up with the motto “fun, fierce and frivolous.”

Kahiu's sci-fi short film "Pumzi" was screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival as part of its New African Cinema program.

Kahiu’s sci-fi short film “Pumzi” was screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival as part of its New African Cinema program. Credit: Wanuri Kahiu

“It’s not that Africa can be these things. Africa is these things,” Kahiu said. “We’ve just chosen to pay attention to one thing and not the other,” she added, referring to the narrative of war, violence and poverty in Africa that, she said, is often pushed by Western art and media.

“Black Panther,” Kahiu said, can also be considered an Afrobubblegum movie: “It’s based on the African continent. It has Africans in it. It’s about Africa and it’s fun, fierce and frivolous.”

Retelling the African story

Kahiu wants to draw attention to the artists telling the story of modern Africa from an African perspective. She makes a point of wearing clothes by Kenyan designers, such as Ambica Shah and Zuri, and brands stocked at Made in Kenya, a shop in Nairobi’s hipster Parklands neighborhood. The “Rafiki” soundtrack was comprised almost entirely of modern Kenyan female artists.

Her Afrobubblegum genre is just one example of how the country’s distinct creative voice is being expressed.

Street art painted onto a footbridge near Nairobi University stirred controversy in Kenya earlier this year, as it was perceived to celebrate LGBTQ cultures. Naitiemu Nyanjom, one of the artists involved, described it as a "stairway to heaven."

Street art painted onto a footbridge near Nairobi University stirred controversy in Kenya earlier this year, as it was perceived to celebrate LGBTQ cultures. Naitiemu Nyanjom, one of the artists involved, described it as a “stairway to heaven.” Credit: Jenni Marsh/CNN

At the Kuona Artists collective in Nairobi, for instance, artists including Ngene Mwaura, who has covered his studio in graffiti, and Kahiu’s sculptor uncle, Jimmy Kaigwa, have formed a hive for Afrobubblegum-style creativity. There, the flamboyant Kenyan artist Michael Soi paints Nairobi’s strip clubs in loud primary colors to hold up an uncomfortable mirror to Kenyan society. (“That’s where your husbands really go on a Thursday night,” he said.)

For Kahiu, Afrobubblegum is simply bringing attention to work that already exists.

“It’s the aesthetic of joy that has always been there. I’m not trying to make it political,” she said. “I’m trying for us to be frivolous.”

Kahiu shot photos using a disposable camera of a trip to Kuona Artists collective in Nairobi. On the right, is Kahiu's self-portrait. Pictured on the bottom left, are artist Michael Soi's works.

Kahiu shot photos using a disposable camera of a trip to Kuona Artists collective in Nairobi. On the right, is Kahiu’s self-portrait. Pictured on the bottom left, are artist Michael Soi’s works. Credit: Wanuri Kahiu

Politics is never far from art, though. Case in point: At Soi’s studio, a huge painting depicting a naked Donald Trump cutting the microphone cables of media networks, including CNN, dominates his space. Freedom of speech is clearly on his mind, too.

Reluctantly, Kahiu accepts that Afrobubblegum’s frothy determination not to be political, might be a political statement in itself.

“Well, being human is politics because when you’re human, you are a race, a gender, a sexuality, a class,” she said. “But if I was a white male standing in America saying, ‘I want to make frivolous work,’ it wouldn’t be political.

“I just don’t know who’s in charge of defining the political sphere and who’s in charge of designating one thing as more political than another.”

Top, a photo of items stocked at the shop Made in Kenya. Middle, artist Ngene Mwaura's graffiti-covered studio. Bottom, clothes by a Kenyan brand.

Top, a photo of items stocked at the shop Made in Kenya. Middle, artist Ngene Mwaura’s graffiti-covered studio. Bottom, clothes by a Kenyan brand. Credit: Jenni Marsh/CNN

A seven-year itch

“Rafiki” was seven years in the making. During that time, as she tried to find funding and secure filming locations, Kahiu had two children, briefly landed her own TV show and left filmmaking for an office job — but quickly returned, hating the routine of a 9-to-5.

In the end, the film took just 24 days to shoot and six months to edit. Kahiu has only ever watched it the whole way through once — at Cannes.

The film is based on the 2007 Caine Prize-winning short story “Jambula Tree” by Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko. Kahiu was looking to make a film about love and said this was simply the best one she found.

“This was the most tender, the most kind, the most beautiful story I had heard. And that’s why I wanted to tell it,” she said.

That it occurred between two women was secondary, she added.

“Rafiki” contains little nudity or sexual content because the nature of a teenage romance didn’t demand it, Kahiu said. But, like all her films, it ends on a message of hope.

This is what got the movie banned. Kahiu said the Kenyan government would have passed the film with an “18” rating (suitable for people aged 18 or over) if she had altered the ending so the characters looked ashamed or remorseful. Ezekiel Mutua, CEO of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), confirmed the ending of the film was “the bone of contention.” Kahiu was asked to edit that portion of the film, so that it didn’t not “glamorize homosexuality,” he said.

But that was a compromise Kahiu wasn’t prepared to make. Her refusal resulted in the banning of the film, Mutua confirmed. And so, Kahiu said, most of her fans, family and friends were left to assume that the film was a sexually explicit portrayal of a lesbian romance — something which could deeply offend conservative, Christian Kenya.

“People were not happy,” she said, recalling the weeks after “Rafiki” was banned. “They would avert their eyes if they saw me.”

Film stills from "Rafiki" show the director's use of pink hues.

Film stills from “Rafiki” show the director’s use of pink hues. Credit: Courtesy iMDb

Stylistically, “Rafiki” is perhaps Kahiu’s most bubblegum-esque expression of Afrobubblegum. From the bright pink braids of lead character, Ziki, to the luminous purples of the Nairobi high-rises where the action takes place, “Rafiki” boasts a dreamy color palette.

Kahiu said the idea was to “reclaim pink,” and other “femme” colors associated with conventional stereotypes of femininity and challenge what being a woman can mean: You can be strong and unorthodox while wearing pink.

In this lush pastel world, protagonists Kena and Ziki, the two lovers, are untroubled by money, disease or war. Their worries are the universal headaches of love, family pressure, school grades and societal acceptance, as they explore their feelings in a country that outlaws gay intimacy.

“I was exploring the idea of the choices you have to make if you are in a same sex relationship between love and courage — between love and safety,” Kahiu said. “If you choose one, you’re definitely not choosing the other.”

As Kena and Ziki’s love story unfolds to the condemnation of their families, church and peers, a helicopter is frequently seen flying overhead. It’s a reminder, explained Kahiu, that the authorities are always watching.

Legal difficulties

After “Rafiki” was banned last year, Kahiu successfully won a one-week lift on the ban in a separate case. A seven-day run was all the film needed to be considered for an Oscar nomination. 
But during that week, KFCB chief executive Mutua sent a chilling public warning to those who screened the film. “We are watching to see which public theatre (sic) will exhibit it without the Board’s approval,” he said on social media. Movie theaters and viewers didn’t seem to care — screenings that week were packed.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country is bracing for the ruling on whether gay sex will be decriminalized. Kahiu said she believes that, while public opinion appears to be divided, if the ruling goes in favor of the LGBTQ community, many Kenyans will feel safe to admit they support gay marriage.

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“When ‘Rafiki’ got into Cannes very few people said ‘congratulations’ because the film was banned,” she said. “But the moment the ban was lifted, people felt like they had the right — or they were then allowed — to congratulate me. They were allowed to be enthusiastic about the film.

“So there is something to be said about the relationship between state and people.”

It comes back to the idea of choosing between your happiness and your safety, she said. Kahiu risked her safety long ago to protect her freedom. Now, she has a global platform, and with US deals rolling in, she is ready to show the world what Afrobubblegum has to offer.

After nearly two decades in the game, Kahiu had yet to make any real money from a film before “Rafiki.”

“I feel like I’m just getting started,” she said.

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Cannes Film Festival 2019: The best celebrity red carpet fashion

Cannes Film Festival 2019: The best celebrity red carpet fashion

Cannes Film Festival 2019: The best celebrity red carpet fashion

This month, Hollywood’s brightest stars are descending upon the French Riviera for the annual Cannes Film Festival. Against the idyllic background of the sun-soaked Riviera, this is where some of the world’s most high-profile directors premiere the films that they hope will excite critics and viewers alike — and, if they’re lucky, win awards.

A brief history of the red carpet

It’s also where celebrities opulent gowns and priceless jewels to daily red carpet premieres.

So far, we’ve seen Bella Hadid in sheer Dior, Priyanka Chopra in sequined Roberto Cavalli, Penelope Cruz in Chanel couture and Deepika Padukone in statement-making Dundas, among other incredible moments. Look through the gallery above for the best fashions from each day of the festival.

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Cannes Film Festival 2019: The best celebrity red carpet fashion

Cannes Film Festival 2019: The best celebrity red carpet fashion

Cannes Film Festival 2019: The best celebrity red carpet fashion

This month, Hollywood’s brightest stars are descending upon the French Riviera for the annual Cannes Film Festival. Against the idyllic background of the sun-soaked Riviera, this is where some of the world’s most high-profile directors premiere the films that they hope will excite critics and viewers alike — and, if they’re lucky, win awards.

A brief history of the red carpet

It’s also where celebrities opulent gowns and priceless jewels to daily red carpet premieres. Look through the gallery above for the best fashions from each day of the festival.

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Zoet en keurig, maar ook onweerstaanbaar charmant

Zoet en keurig, maar ook onweerstaanbaar charmant

Zoet en keurig, maar ook onweerstaanbaar charmant

Nog jaarlijks stond Doris Day op haar verjaardag op het balkon van haar huis op een heuvel in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Californië, te zwaaien naar de fans die zich beneden hadden verzameld. Het waren er nog altijd enkele honderden, die ze via een mobiel telefoontje aan haar oor bedankte voor hun gelukwensen. Ze droeg meestal een buitenmodel zonnebril, terwijl haar intussen spierwitte kapsel gemodelleerd bleef naar het kittige model dat ze ook al droeg in de jaren zeventig, toen ze nog blond was en langzaam maar zeker afscheid nam van haar vak. Over haar leeftijd liepen de meningen intussen uiteen: zelf noemde ze 1924 als haar geboortejaar, maar volgens haar biograaf moet dat twee jaar eerder zijn geweest.

Ze overleed maandagochtend op – waarschijnlijk – 97-jarige leeftijd in datzelfde huis op de heuvel in Californië, bevestigde de Doris Day-stichting.

Doris Day was, hoe dan ook, een van de populairste sterren uit de Amerikaanse showbizzgeschiedenis, als zangeres en als filmactrice. En daarna was ze ook als dierenbeschermingsactiviste, via haar Doris Day Animal League, razend populair. Er was een tijd, vooral in de jaren tachtig, dat menigeen haar werk afschreef als burgerlijke zoetigheid – treffend beschreven in de grappige jammerklacht ‘Doris Day’ van de groep Doe Maar, anno 1982: „Hee, er is geen bal op de tv/ alleen een film met Doris Day…” Maar haar onverwoestbare charme bleef onaangetast.

Bovendien kwam er allengs meer oog voor haar capaciteiten. Zo nam ze in 1989 een ere-Golden Globe in ontvangst voor haar gehele filmoeuvre en in 2008 een ere-Grammy voor haar prestaties op de plaat. Alleen een ere-Oscar is haar nooit toegekend.

Ze heette Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff en was afkomstig uit een geslacht van Duitse immigranten in Cincinnati. Ze wilde danseres worden, maar liep door een auto-ongeluk een beenblessure op die dat haar onmogelijk maakte. Terwijl ze genas, werd ze thuis aangestoken door de dansorkesten die hun populaire liedjes op de radio speelden. Ze zong mee en besloot dat ze óók bij zo’n orkest wilde horen. Eind jaren dertig kreeg ze haar eerste engagementen en mocht ze zelfs al voor de radio optreden.

Haar eerste faam dateert uit de oorlogsjaren, toen ze de vaste zangeres was van het eminente jazzorkest van Les Brown. Daarmee maakte ze in 1945 ook haar eerste hit: het romig gearrangeerde ‘Sentimental Journey’, dat onder meer de harten beroerde van de Amerikaanse soldaten in verre oorden die popelden om af te zwaaien en, vervuld van heimwee, terug te keren naar de omgeving van hun jeugdjaren. Door de troostende koestering van haar stem, haar vlekkeloze dictie en haar soepel swingende voordracht werd ze meteen een ster. Ze bleef toeren met Les Brown en de zijnen en werkte wekelijks als zangeres mee aan een druk beluisterde radioshow van komiek Bob Hope.

Haar tweede carrière, als filmactrice, begon drie jaar later, toen de populaire Betty Hutton wegens zwangerschap haar rol in de musicalfilm Romance on the high seas moest afzeggen. Moeiteloos kwam Doris Day door de te elfder ure uitgeschreven auditie heen. Die film leverde haar bovendien haar tweede hit, ‘It’s magic, op.

Vervolgens maakte ze de ene film na de andere. Een vroeg hoogtepunt was de western-musical Calamity Jane, waarin ze een van haar grootste hits ten gehore bracht: het van verlangen vervulde Secret love. En nog veel meer succes boekte ze met het uiterst meezingbare Que sera, sera (whatever will be, will be), een vlot levenslesje dat ze zong in de Hitchcock-thriller The man who knew too much (1956). Die film, waarin ze een rijk geschakeerd emotioneel arsenaal liet zien, werd algemeen beschouwd als bewijs dat Doris Day een serieus te nemen actrice was. In antwoord op de vraag hoe hij die onverwachte diepten in haar had aangeboord, zei Hitchcock eens: „Dat was ik niet, dat was Doris.”

Romkom

Toch werden de romantische komedies, met of zonder zang, wel haar handelsmerk. Tegenover heel wat mannelijke Hollywood-idolen (Rock Hudson, David Niven, Cary Grant, James Garner) was Doris Day voortdurend het pittige jonge vrouwtje dat sexy kon zijn zonder haar deugdzaamheid te verliezen. Het genre werd in 1960 door filmredacteur Jan Blokker in het Algemeen Handelsblad, voorloper van deze krant, beschreven als „dat wat gelikte soort Amerikaanse komedies waarin mensen die mekaar tenslotte trouwen, altijd beginnen elkander te haten.” Een andere tegenspeler, de acteur Oscar Levant, zou naar aanleiding van haar brave filmimago eens hebben gezegd: „Ik heb Doris Day nog gekend voordat ze een maagd was.”

Haar grootste hits uit die tijd waren veelal de filmtitelsongs, zoals ‘Tea for two’ (niemand heeft een kopje thee romantischer bezongen dan zij), ‘Pillow talk’ (in Nederland uitgebracht als Slaapkamergeheimpjes) en het eigentijdsere ‘Move over darling’, mede geschreven door haar zoon Terry Melcher, die een prominent platenproducer was, maar al in 2004 aan kanker overleed.

In de loop van de jaren zestig raakte Doris Day echter danig uit de mode, deels door haar eigen toedoen. Aan gewaagdere projecten wilde ze zich niet branden. Zo weigerde ze de rol van Mrs. Robinson, de vrouw van middelbare leeftijd die een bleue student verleidt in The Graduate. Ze vond het script „vulgair en stuitend”, zei ze later in het blad Vanity Fair. Vervolgens liet actrice Anne Bancroft zien hoeveel eer er met die rol kon worden ingelegd.

Daarna maakte Doris Day nog enkele grote tv-shows, maar bleef ze overwegend buiten beeld. Al benadrukte ze in een tv-interview in 1994, bij het verschijnen van een album met nooit eerder uitgebrachte opnamen: „Niets is voorbij tot het voorbij is.”

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2019-05-13 17:51:34

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Veel oude bekenden

Veel oude bekenden

Veel oude bekenden

Bij het Palais de Festivals vinden de laatste voorbereidingen plaats voor het filmfestival van Cannes, dat dinsdagavond van start gaat. De 72ste editie opent met de zombiefilm The Dead Don’t Die van regisseur Jim Jarmusch, met Bill Murray en Adam Driver in de hoofdrollen. Ook zal op het festival de nieuwe film van Quentin Tarantino Once Upon a Time in Hollywood met Leonardo DiCaprio en Brad Pitt in première gaan.

Het festival legt een sterk accent op nieuwe films van oude bekenden van het festival en toont nieuwste films van veteranen als Ken Loach en Pedro Almodovar. Vier vrouwen haalden de filmcompetitie van in totaal twintig films. Het festival in Cannes duurt nog tot 25 mei.

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2019-05-13 00:00:00

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