Censorship in the arts industry is not anew thing in this region as many artistes find their works on the wrong side of the law.
Last year at the Zanzibar International Film Festival the screening of Zimbabwean film Escape by Joe Njagu and Agnieszka Piotrowska had to be cut short due to what festival organisers deemed as unacceptable sexual scenes that was against the societal norms.
Despite the negotiations the film was never saw the light of the day, the film according to the festival promoted values that were not African and more especially Zanzibari.
And then came the mother of all in Kenya when Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki was banned, the film went on to premiere and win an award at the Cannes Film Festival last month.
According to Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) boss Ezekiel Mutua, the film promotes homosexuality.
When I first met Wanuri several years ago was at the screening of her film at ZIFF and that same film, Pumzi went on to win an award at the festive. She was never an easy character film-wise she spoke about difficult topics.
And now she says Rafiki is just the beginning. She says the noise being made about the film in Kenya is just what the industry needs to grow.
Speaking to Sunday Nation (a sister publication of The Beat), Ms Kahiu wondered why KFCB was overstepping its mandate, which is to classify films.
“We believe their mandate is to classify; we also believe Kenyan adults are mature and discerning enough to vote for presidents and constitutions. If we are able to do all that, then we are able to see a film that has no nudity, no drugs, no underage drinking and no obscenity. We are able to see those films and grapple with the issues they depict. We are a mature people,” Ms Kahiu says.
“We also know that we have access to this same content on the screens which the KFCB has classified. We have seen more shockers in the theatres that have been rated by KFCB than what is in my film,” adds the author, who describes herself as a creator.
When the film was banned by KFCB, orders were issued against its distribution, exhibition or broadcast anywhere in the country, adding that doing so would be a breach of the law because the film contains homosexual scenes.
Kahiu wonders why everyone has been talking about film laws which have been in existence for more than 50 years, which were used by colonisers’ to suppress the art industry.
“My curiosity is why we started talking about these laws, yet they have been in existence for more than 50 years. My question is, why are we using laws that were created during the colonial era to suppress and control us? Why are we proudly using them now? That can’t be right.” “The law should be a reflection of our society and more so a reflection of the Constitution we voted for, she adds.
Ms Kahiu said that Kenya was privileged to be a democratic country and everyone had the right to vote, and most have voted for a constitution that guarantees freedom of expression. And that, she says, is what Kenyans should be concentrating on.
The film maker, who has written and directed several films, believes that change is coming because there are too many voices in the industry which are saying, “this can’t be right.”
She adds that there are many artistes and organisations who are saying they cannot allow a country to be ruled or suppressed by the will of a few in power. “We need to have a voice in order to push for change. We need our voices to be hopeful, joyful, and we need them to be through art because that is the only way we can reflect our own society. We feel that KFCB are some of the people in power who are trampling on our constitutional rights.”
She defends Rafiki saying she made it 100 per cent within the law. “I did not break any law while making this film, unlike what has been said by the head of KFCB. The Constitution guarantees me freedom of expression to make the film.”
On whether she supports homosexuality, Ms Kahiu says there is no law in Kenya which says it is illegal and wonders why her film was banned yet no one has ever been arrested nor film makers challenged when they have a film that has violence in it.
According to Ms Kahiu, her film has got more attention because of the ban. “I think the movie got more attention the moment it was banned. I believe Dr Mutua knew it would get more attention if he banned it.”
She also credits the KFCB boss for being the first person to talk about the film to the media.
Rafiki will be released soon in New York, Los Angeles and five other cities in the United States. It will also be released in Switzerland and in France and will be in more than 40 theatres across the country.
Asked about the seven-minute standing ovation at Cannes, where the film premiered, a beaming Ms Kahiu said the reason it got such a reception was because it was a love story from Kenya. “I can’t market Kenya more than the film itself can. It will be at this month’s Sydney Film Festival. So I’m excited that we will have a bit of Nairobi in Sydney.”
Ms Kahiu is grateful to the Kenya Film Commission (KFC) who, she says, have been very supportive and fully behind Rafiki. “The commission helped us get to Cannes because they believed that, being the first Kenyan film at the festival is not only something worth celebrating but also a mark of the industry’s growth.”
Additional reporting by Paul Owere in Dar es Salaam