In order to win the highly prestigious Palme d’or, or Golden Palm, at Cannes Film Festival, you must first create a story that is important. To be more specific, you have to create a story that a wide audience will perceive as being important, but who deems whose stories as having significance?
Filmmaker and director, Wanuri Kahiu, 36, of Kenya recently challenged the idea of importance with her film, Rafiki, which translates to Friend. It is the first Kenyan film featured at Cannes. Rafiki, based on the Ugandan short story, Jambula Tree, chronicles the love story between two lovers in Nairobi. On the surface, that does not sound unordinary. The issue lies in the fact that the two lovers are both women, and homosexuality is still considered a crime in Kenya, and widely considered to be “unAfrican”.
What is and what is not considered African is something that Kahiu has been dealing with for most of her career. When she began to tell fantastical stories about made-up lands and 7-foot-tall robots, critics argued that her work was not important, and therefore not African.
Because the Kenya Film Classification Board believes her movie to be promoting homosexuality, it has been banned in her home country. That means it is illegal to distribute, exhibit, broadcast and possess the film.
Rafiki is an immensely important film because it showcases an African love story where the main characters are healthy, have financial stability and experience joy. Africa is typically depicted as a continent in turmoil where everyone is living in destitution, therefore their love stories are looked at with much less significance. If Africa is constantly characterized by extreme poverty, war and AIDS, then a simple love story is not very important. While all of those things are definitely relevant in Africa, it is also extremely damaging to depict the continent in only one way. Africa is a huge and vastly diverse place that is deserving of love stories.
Not only does Kahiu’s film allow us to challenge our view of the world, it is also a great feat for the African film industry because it was not funded by a European company. Rafiki was co-produced by South African producer, Steven Markovitz.
African creatives will typically turn to Europe for funding, and that allows the producer to take control of the subject. Essentially, Europeans are telling African’s stories and garner the intellectual property of African cinema.
Kahiu believes the best way to solve this problem is through establishing co-production treaties with other African nations and organizing a bigger community between African filmmakers. “I think we need to work with the nations that have already been in the industry for so long — that already have established producers and a filmmaking community — to get governments to talk to each other,” she says.
Allowing African countries to fund their own films gives them complete control over how their stories are being told. During a 2014 TED Talk, Kahiu describes just how valuable telling your own story is, “Storytelling is not only the ability to tell stories; a storyteller, in my tradition, is to be a seer so you can predict the future. You can say things were going to happen through stories. You could have a whole person’s personal history told through stories,” she pauses then finishes with, “It is the ability to just be ourselves.”
Rafiki was not crowned with the honor of being this year’s Palme d’Or winner; it was given to Shoplifters, by Hirokazu Kore-eda, a Japanese family drama. The first and only time an African won the Palme d’or was in 1975 for Algeria’s Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina’s Chronicle of the Years of Fire. Both films portray characters devastated by outside influences and inner conflicts; they are both incredibly important pieces of art.
Featured Image via Wikimedia