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Highly-acclaimed feature film Rafiki by celebrated director Wanuri Kahiu

Highly-acclaimed feature film Rafiki by celebrated director Wanuri Kahiu,  may be canned in Kenya, but not at Cannes. With the premiere of the film this week, Grace Wachira and Virginia Wambui shine the spotlight on the Kenya Film and Classification Board (KFCB), as debate rages on whether or not Kenya is mature enough to handle sensitive topics such as sexuality

Kenyan-made film, Rafiki, broke new ground this week when it finally premiered at the ongoing 71st annual Cannes Film Festival — arguably the world’s most prestigious and largest film festival.

The highly-acclaimed film by renowned director, Wanuri Kahiu, caused abuzz all over the world when news hit sometime back that it would be the first local film to debut at the festival.

Even Hollywood A-listers such as Scandal’s lead actress Kerry Washington reached out to Wanuri to congratulate her. However, on the home front, some felt otherwise in regard to this coming-of-age love story. Rafiki is a story that highlights the plight of two young women from a small town who fall in love and are subjected to persecution by the community.

The film, which premiered in the Un Certain Regard selection, has now been banned in 254 by the Kenyan Film Classification Board (KFCB), led by CEO Dr Ezekiel Mutua, popularly known as the ‘moral police’, who argues it seeks to “normalise homosexuality in Kenya”.

The ban came days after President Uhuru Kenyatta in an interview with an international media institution stated gay issues are not an issue of human rights, but society, echoing his words in 2015, during the visit by former US President Barack Obama, where he said: “We share a lot of things, but gay issues are not among them. We cannot impose on people what they don’t accept.”

Wanuri took to Twitter to express her disappointment after the ban, saying, “We believe adult Kenyans are mature and discerning enough to watch local content but their right has been denied.”

She went on to add: “Kenyans already have access to watch films that have lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) content on Netflix, and in international films shown in Kenya and permitted by the classification board itself; to then ban a Kenyan film because it deals with something already happening in society just seems like a contradiction.”

Last year, KFCB also pulled the plug on popular Andy Mack Show after the Disney Channel show introduced a gay character in its second season. Mutua responded by saying: “Homosexuality goes against the collective and values by the people of Kenya.”

Also caught under the butcher’s knife for the second time were award-winning band, Sauti Sol. Their hit, Melanin, featuring Patoranking, has over 10 million views on YouTube and was banned after generating the same response as their hit, Nishike.

Mutua termed the video offensive by accepted standards of morality and decency. Since the ban, entertainment circles have sparked a debate regarding the mandate of the film board, and just what their power entails. Adding his voice is celebrated actor Gerald Langiri.

“I can’t speak on Rafiki because I have not yet had the pleasure to watch it. However, the board is within its right and mandate when it comes to rating and banning films.

It’s supposed to rate films, but in certain cases where they feel the movie is not up to standards in terms of public viewing, it lies to them to balance it. I think the biggest debate is if it is right to ban the film they banned. And I think the board is going according to the law.

Rafiki involves LGBT themes, and while I have no issue with lesbians and gay people, at the moment, our country where it is, the law still does not freely allow expression of gayism and lesbianism.

I’m mad because they banned a film that according to them, is not right for public viewing. That’s an opportunity we’ve lost. It’s a good film that has garnered international fame. I’m mad because we as Kenyans have not accepted it,” he says.

Also adding his voice was actor Mwaniki Mageria, the brains behind Balozi Productions who also sits on the Kenya Film Commission.

Mwaniki said such actions do not infringe on the creativity of producers and film makers. “If it is against the law, it’s against the law. There’s no two ways about it. Kenyans have not come of age yet.

It is a Western lifestyle issue, not ours. We have bigger issues to debate like flooding, corruption and jobs. We need to have the right conversations that will attend to more pressing matters that need to be resolved,” said the Riverwood secretary general and treasurer of the Guild of Film Distributors in Kenya.

Mwaniki added: “Spiritually, we do not condone the same, so it was expected the film would not really take off here. On the bright side, the local film industry has been boosted.

The fact that attention has been capitalised on the industry has put us on the map. Now the world knows that the Kenyan film industry exists and we can maximise on that, bounce off and take our standards to the next level. This is good for us.”

KFCB has been quick to point out they rarely ban content for mainstream media unless the said content is promoting violence, hate speech, war or terrorism.

“A lot of the times when we raise the red flag, it is based on the fact that it did not fall within the stipulated guidelines.

We simply restrict until they adhere to the set guidelines. Based on the synopsis, we issue the licences as is required of us. It is mainly done to ensure order, not to control creativity,” said a representative of the board.

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