Screening of a film portraying a homosexual romance in Kenya is adding pressure for changes to the country’s restrictive legislation. Will Kenya follow India and repeal its anti-homosexuality laws? And what will this mean for film making in the country?
“Give thanks to freedom of expression!!!! WE DID IT!” Tweeted Kenyan film director Wanuri Kahiu. Kahiu had much to celebrate; her film ‘Rafiki’, which had been banned by Kenyan censorship, has been permitted license to screen in the country.
‘Rafiki’ follows the love story of two young women against the backdrop of Kenya’s discriminatory legal system and social stigma surrounding homosexuality.
The film had been prohibited from screening by Kenya’s Film Classification Board (KFCB); however, the ban was lifted for 7 days during September to enable the film to qualify for entry into the Oscars’ foreign languages category.
Sex between two individuals of the same gender is illegal in Kenya, and regulators denounced the film as ‘morally subversive’ and ‘promoted homosexuality’.
Kenya is one of the 37 African countries, and over 70 countries around the world which still criminalise homosexual acts, with consenting partners found conducting same sex relations facing up to 14 years imprisonment.
Rafiki premiered at Cannes in May- the first Kenyan motion picture to enter the festival- to critical acclaim. However, without being screened in the country it was not eligible for the Academy Awards.
The film screening lasted just one week, however it was hailed by producers and civil rights activists as a milestone for Kenya and Kenyan film.
“In enacting the law on films and stage plays in Kenya, the colonial state viewed artistic expression as inherently subversive and disruptive of the status quo,” wrote respected writer Kimani Njogu, in the Nation newspaper last week.
Meanwhile, Actress, Lupita Nyongo tweeted, “A great day for the creative industry in Kenya!”
The film has been regarded as a challenge to Kenya’s anti-homosexuality laws.
“Making a film about two young women in love challenges the larger human rights issues associated with same sex relationships in East Africa,” said Wanuri Kahiu.
“When art is truthful and fulfilling its social function, it shows the world as changeable and helps in changing it,” wrote Njogu.
Such legislation in Kenya and other regions of East Africa has stifled productions seeking to relay human stories.
“Local films and international TV shows have been banned because of LGBTI content,” says Kahiu, “May this film shout where voices have been silenced.”
Push for changes to anti-homosexuality legislation
The film has increased pressure on Kenya’s authorities for revisions of the country’s legal system. Kenya’s law was introduced over 120 years ago while the country was under British rule. Following the introduction of a new constitution in 2010, which calls for equality and protection against discrimination, the colonial regulations face a growing number of challenges.
In February this year, The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission disputed the penal code at Kenya’s high court, arguing they breached basic human rights.
Scrapping of the same law in India in September paved the way for further challenges in Kenya. On October 25th courts will hear submissions from parties for and against decriminalisation regarding the relevance of India’s revisions for Kenya’s constitution.
Relaxation of current anti-homosexuality laws could permit more freedom for film makers to champion LGBT rights. Following legalisation in the UK in 1967, documentaries including Speak for Yourself: Homosexual Equality (1974) and Young Lesbians (1978), and many fiction films, provided a voice for LGBT communities.
More recently, India’s film and television industry has also been celebrating legalisation of homosexuality in the country last month. On 6th September the Indian High Court finally struck down Section 337, a ruling implemented over 150 years ago under British colonial rule.
“People are more open about their sexuality with their families and also when talking to the media. When I reported on these issues several years ago, many felt compelled to speak anonymously for fear of being penalised, this is less so the case now.”
“I am more than happy with this decision by the Supreme Court of India to decriminalized homosexuality, allowing people to love freely whoever they want,” said Sagar Srivastava, Director of Film Fixer Mumbai.
“In India, highly skilled filmmakers are quite open about talking and working on the theme of homosexuality, constantly push boundaries beyond the comfort zone to explore more on this sensitive topic,” Srivastava continued.
Indeed, many Indian film makers have been championing LGBT rights far before September’s ruling. Deepa Mehta’s 1996 hit, ‘Fire’, which follows a lesbian romance; ‘My Brother Nikhil’ (2005) by Onir, a film reflecting on India’s attitude towards HIV, and Arekti Premer Golpo (Just another love story) which focused on the psychological upheaval faced by transgender individuals.
Homosexuality was also a prominent theme of the Bombay Talkies, an Indian anthology film, screened at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, celebrating the 100th year of Indian cinema.
“Films about the LGBTQ community were being made in India far before homosexuality ceased to be a criminal offence,” says Vandana a Fixer and writer based in New Delhi.
“But we in the film industry do hope this ruling will open up more opportunities to represent the LGBTQ community on camera.”
“I work closely with journalists from the print media, if a journalist decides to a do a story on the LGBTQ community in India, I hope that finding and speaking to sources from the community will be much easier than it used to be in the past,” She reflected.
In addition to this increased presence of homosexuality in Indian film, we are also seeing a far more powerful and nuanced portrayal of LGBTQ characters and their relationships on screen.
“While I was growing up, I remember watching Bollywood films and TV shows where LGBTQ people were mostly presented as comic characters, but in recent years there have been gradual shift,” says Vandana.
Films like Aligarh, by Hansal Mehta, a sensitive portrayal of a professor who faces discrimination at his university after his sexual orientation is discovered by his colleagues, is one production in this new wave of Indian film and television.
“We are definitely seeing a change in the ways homosexuality is represented on screen, these films exploring the everyday lives of the LGBTQ community would not have been made ten years ago,” says Sachdev.
“People who censored themselves will be able to make art which is more representative,” she continued.
While this ruling has been welcomed as a significant step for civil rights, challenges remain in tackling discrimination and several political and religious figures have criticised the ruling.
Indeed, substantial parts of Indian film and television remain sexually conservative and reluctant to welcome such progress.
“There are also close-minded conservatives who despite of the change in the law, still prefer adhering to rudimentary thinking,” warns Srivastava.
Sachdev also warned repeal of Section 377 was by no means the end of the line and further progress is required.
“There is still a lot more progress to be made in granting equal rights,” she says. “We have seen substantial improvements, but stigma undoubtedly remains.”
The future of homosexuality on camera in Kenya
The future looks bright for LGBTQ rights in Kenya. The screening of Rafiki, and the groundswell of support it has received suggests changes in the country’s penal code and popular mindsets are round the corner. After India’s repeal of the same colonial legal systems, it looks increasingly likely Kenya will follow suit.
Kahui’s film has exhibited the power of cinema to propel social and political shifts. However, it is important not to overstate the impact of Rafiki. The film was shown for just one week, and other productions remain prohibited. While challenges to the legislation are mounting, we are yet to see the whether formal submissions for repeal will be granted.
Nevertheless, this is an exciting time for the LGBTQ community and the filmmakers in Kenya.