Starring Samantha Mugatsia. In English and Swahili, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
Rafiki means “friend” in Swahili, and this feisty, ruggedly amateurish film from Kenya attempts to interrogate the basic notion of friendship, with or without benefits.
This second feature from writer-director Wanuri Kahiu has a keen eye for the rhythmic hustle and brightly coloured backgrounds of daily traffic in “the Slopes”, a working-class quarter of Nairobi. Almost any western visitor would recognize that teenage Kena Mwaura (Samantha Mugatsia), with her cropped cut, backwards ball cap, and ever-present skateboard, doesn’t have the orientation expected of the daughter of a local shopkeeper and would-be politician (Jimmy Gathu). But, probably because everyone in this crowd grew up together, best friend Blacksta (Neville Misati) and his pals simply accept her as “one of the guys”.
Their perceptions, and her own, are challenged when she bumps into Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), who looks like an Egyptian princess but is all hip-hop girly in spandex and pink-and-blue cornrow extensions. Something clicks, and Kena’s not deterred by the fact that Ziki is the daughter of another, much wealthier guy running against her recently divorced dad in a civic election. The Julie-and-Juliet aspect of the story is the only high-concept thing going here, and the pox-on-both-their-houses part doesn’t really pay off. Rich and poor alike, in this somewhat underpopulated tale, are freaked out when the two kids get serious.
It’s fortunate that the leads have sufficient sparkle to ensure viewer sympathy, because the storytelling here, to be honest, is pretty iffy. Once the stakes are raised, the girls keep acting out their mostly chaste affair in front of the neighbourhood gossip and others likely to cause them harm. That happens. The characters themselves are woefully inarticulate, which might be realistic, although this blunts Rafiki’s opportunity to give them voices. Even so, the movie—banned in its home country—is well worth seeing for the breath of life it brings to people and a part of the world that aren’t nearly as far away as they seem.