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Wanuri Kahiu 
Originally published during 71st Cannes Film Festival

Kena and Ziki long for something more. Despite the political rivalry between their families, the girls resist and remain, close friends, supporting each other to pursue their dreams in a conservative society.

When love blossoms between them, the two girls will be forced to choose between happiness and safety.

Rafiki from writer/director Wanuri Kahiu marks the first time in the history of Festival de Cannes that a Kenyan film has debuted at the festival. 

Hello Wanuri thanks for talking to tNC, how's everything going?

Great, thank you.

Congratulations on having Rafiki part of this year's Un Certain Regard, how does it feel to have your film part of the festival?

Amazing! It is truly a dream come true to premiere at Cannes. What an honour to play in the same festival as African cinema legends like Sembène Ousmane, Souleymane Cisse, and Abderrahmane Sissako. We feel our film adds to African cinematic history and injects the energy, vibrancy, and excitement of our young, thriving cosmopolitan cities.

With Rafiki being the first Kenyan feature film to be selected for the Un Certain Regard strand at Cannes are there any nerves ahead of the festival?

The most present feeling is excitement. We were initially anxious about the reception of the news of the film in Kenya but instead had overwhelming support from the various cultural ministries and government offices, as well as the support of the film industry and Kenyans in general. We feel as if we are taking Kenya to the world through this film and proud to be representing the country with such softness and hope.


As an award-winning filmmaker what has it meant to you to get this type of recognition for your work?

Being invited to Cannes is in itself an award, and one of the most prestigious too. To be part of a few selected films playing at the festival is recognition of the work of many. It means we are being seen and acknowledged and represented on screen. It means there is space for emerging film markets in an international cinematic space.

Does winning awards add any additional pressure on you as a filmmaker?

I can’t say I define success by awards, while they are important milestones and a testament of the time, effort and work of many, they are only a small part of the goal. Success is being able to work consistently in film, and finding a global community that supports the creation of agenda-less, joyful, hopeful African art.

Can you tell me a little bit about Rafiki, how did this film come about?

My Producer, Steven Markovitz challenged me to find a modern African story to adapt to film. It was then I started looking for different stories. Before long, I discovered the 2007 Caine Prize Winner “Jambula Tree” a short story about the difficulties of young love. When I first read the story I was incredibly taken by the naivety and courage of the main characters. As a romantic, I have always wanted to make a love story and after reading Monica’s story of first love, I knew it was the story I wanted to bring to the screen.

What was the inspiration behind this film?

We were lucky to have the short story as the first source of inspiration. We then used the locations and people as the secondary source. Once we knew where we wanted to shoot the film, we adapted the script to suit the location, and the space and community soon became the primary antagonistic force and a great source of inspiration.


What was the most challenging part of bringing this film to life been? 

Making a film about two young women in love challenges the larger human rights issues associated with same-sex relationships in East Africa. Over the past 5 years of developing this film, we have seen worrying developments in the anti-LGBTI climate in East Africa. Local films and international TV shows have been banned because of LGBTI content. While filming, we challenged deep-rooted cynicism about same-sex relations among the actors, crew and continue to do so with friends, relatives, and the larger society. The most difficult part was starting the conversations and asking others to join in.  

Looking back is there anything you would do differently on this film?

There is always something to learn from making a film, sometimes those lessons can only come from going through the experience and looking back. There are many little things I would change, but the most important things like the cast, crew and the world, I would keep exactly the same. 

Have you always been interested in filmmaking?

I was 16 when I fell in love with film and the creation of stories. I still am.

How different was the process of making this film compared to when you made your previous films?

Every film is different. My last film was a science fiction film and the approach was quite different. This film was a love story, it required a different level of engagement and care. The similarities between the films are they are all female-centred characters and the actors are often new to film.

Has your style as a filmmaker changed much since your debut film?


Yes and no. My style is the theme of my films. They may be in different genres but the style, the essence of the film remains the same. It is as if I try and answer the same question in different stories. However, technically, my ability changes with the more I know.  


What has been the best piece of advice you've been given?


Do. Don’t say, do. 


What filmmakers inspire you?


Ava DuVernay is one of the most admirable filmmakers. Her films are important and beautiful, and her fight for inclusion in mainstream media is admirable. She is a true hero. 


Now you can be reflective do you have any advice you would offer a fellow director?


Work with people whose work you admire and intimidates you.


And finally, what do you hope people will take away from this film?


My hope is that RAFIKI is viewed as an ode to young love, whose course is never smooth and as a message of love and support to those asked to choose between love and safety.

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