There are a lot of reasons why “Rafiki,” which played in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, is a significant movie. It’s the first Kenyan film ever to make Cannes’ main selection, for one thing. It is a rare same-sex romance to come out of Africa, where intolerance for homosexuality runs strong (and has been encouraged by religious-right westerners). And it was banned in its home country in the weeks before Cannes, making its international exposure even more important.
None of this has anything to do with the quality of the film — but it gives Cannes viewers reasons to give “Rafiki” the benefit of the doubt, which its premiere audience at the Salle Debussy did. Second-time director Wanuri Kahiu, one of a larger-than-usual contingent of female directors in the main selection, has crafted a modest, at times striking drama that is perhaps more notable for what it represents than what it is.
American audiences may see the title and immediately think of a character from “The Lion King,” but the name is simply Swahili for “friend.” The friends in the spotlight here are Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), a young woman who rides her skateboard through her small town and bears a sadness that comes in part from the divorce of her parents; and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a free spirit who catches Kena’s eye.
They have a meet-cute when Kena catches Ziki and her friends tearing down Kena’s father’s campaign posters for the local office of MCA. (It turns out that Ziki’s dad is the opposing candidate.) In a town where casual homophobia is the order of the day and the preacher condemns gays from the pulpit on Sunday, the two girls rather quickly move past mild flirtation into affection that’s open enough to attract the attention of their friends, neighbors and families, and then to bring the condemnation of the community down on them in full force.
Kahiu gives the film a brightness and vibrancy that works to counterbalance the perilous waters into which Kena and Ziki are venturing. But she’s not opposed to underlining her points a little too clearly: Ziki wears a t-shirt that reads “BAD NEWS,” and the African pop songs that pop up three times during the movie are so on-the-nose as to be distracting.
Perhaps because it was made under the hopes that it could screen in Kenya, “Rafiki” is also circumspect and timid when it comes to sex; Kena and Ziki’s coupling is never shown apart from kisses and a few fully-clothed caresses, but the brutal beating they endure because of it is graphically depicted.
Still, Kahiu is an economical filmmaker, getting through the story in only 82 minutes and leaving us with a bit of hope that doesn’t feel too melodramatic. “Rafiki” may not be the kind of film that can stand alongside many of the Cannes offerings as a substantial piece of cinema — but the fact that an African film about a same-sex relationship is getting this kind of international exposure makes it a valuable part of this year’s festival.