“Rafiki” Star Sam Mugatsia on Sudden Fame and Her Banned Debut Film

Feature image by Jebet Naava

On the morning of September 21st, a packed courtroom in Nairobi, Kenya sat tensely awaiting orders from a judge.

“The undisputed fact is that the practice of homosexuality did not begin with the film Rafiki,” Judge Okwany read. “This is a subject that has sparked debate and controversy in many countries including Kenya… In effect therefore, homosexuality is an issue that is a reality in the society and the question which then arises is whether a film should be restricted merely because it depicts a gay theme.”

With her ruling, the judge temporarily lifted a countrywide ban barring the screening or distribution of the movie Rafiki for “promoting homosexuality.” Scoring a major win for freedom of expression and creativity in Kenya. In effect, this would make the movie — a coming of age story in which two teenage girls from opposing political families fall in love — eligible for Oscar nomination.

‘A once in a lifetime opportunity,’ the film’s director had argued to the court.

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For Sam Mugatsia, co-lead actor in the movie who plays the character Kena, — loveable, tomboyish, queer teenager enthralled with her more boisterous, vibrant neighbor Ziki — this moment was surreal. She had watched the movie countless times in the months before, witnessed it bring tears to audiences across Europe, cried as it received a standing ovation at its history-making premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and had seen her face plastered on billboards from Toronto to Paris. Yet the movie, until then, had never been seen in its home country. Her home country.

Kenyan born and raised, Sam tells me the result of the ban placed on the movie is that it leaves her “in two dimensions.” Splitting her world into one where she is a recognizable and celebrated film actress walking red carpets and the other where she is a lesser known Kenyan musician just trying to “put in her hours.” Freshly returned from Frankfurt, Germany where Rafiki won its first two international awards at the Lucas Festival; and following the first screenings of the film in Kenya, I caught up with Sam to talk about her unexpected fame and the controversy surrounding her debut film.

You’ve made history at 25, as a star of the first Kenyan film to premiere at Cannes and in Kenya as the first queer themed film to be screened commercially. Not to mention adding your name to an unfortunately long line of Kenyan creators whose work has been banned in the country because it was considered subversive or against social mores. What’s your response to this?

That’s crazy to hear. Even when it’s written down, it just sounds crazy. This is the first time this is happening to me, so I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be like. Cannes on its own felt unrealistic. I still can’t believe that happened. It felt like a dream.

What didn’t you expect about Cannes?

All of it. You’re in this gorgeous place casually hanging out with all these famous people. I didn’t know that on the first night is when everyone is put in the same room for dinner. At the corner of my eye I could see Ava Duvernay. Meanwhile Cate Blanchett is talking to someone and she’s giving me and my co-lead actress [Sheila Munyiva] eye contact. On day two, Benicio Del Torro walked up to me during lunch and that’s when I knew, “Things are real.” He didn’t go to the food station or to the champagne bar, he came to say hi to me. The film hadn’t even screened by then; we had just met him at the opening night dinner.

What about getting recognized in Nairobi?

I don’t go out much. But when I do, I can see people looking at me, people asking for pictures. I’m just like, “Sorry, I don’t do this.” I don’t know where you’ll post it. There are enough pictures of me everywhere.

What’s the experience of seeing those images of you everywhere and your image reflected in a way that isn’t happening in Kenya at the same level? Seeing your face on a subway in Paris, for instance?

It’s crazy. I get so many DMs with people showing me, “You’re here, the movie’s amazing!” It’s a beautiful feeling but it leaves me with… it leaves me in two dimensions. It splits the world for me. When I’m here, “I’m like this.” When I’m there, I’m like, “Oh yeah, hugs, photos…” I’m not paranoid about someone misusing some information or just mistreating me. Then I get a weird come down when I come back.

I saw the film for the first time when the ban was lifted and I keep going back to the cinematography, it’s stunning. And the love story between your character, Kena, and Ziki is so tender. It’s a beautiful movie overall.

The palette, wow. [Director] Wanuri Kahiu has been imagining this film for 11 years and what you see is her vision. I really hope people who see it enjoy it. For us, it was about trying to bring out that first love story we’ve all experienced. Like, “Oh my God, is she that pretty? Oh my gosh, do I really feel this way for her?”

Then you’re not sure about your feelings and there are all these people who have an opinion about it. I don’t know if you noticed this, but the more I liked her, the more my shirt would turn pink. No matter how many times I watch it, all those transitions still give me the shivers.

Did you know this movie would be controversial in Kenya?

We knew it was going to be controversial which is why we created a safe space for the cast and other people who had a lot of visibility around this film. Even now, with the other lead, the director and I, we really have to be open about every move we’re making. With our families, we had to have these meetings and let them know we had made this movie. We told them that it had two women falling in love and was based off a story [Jambula Tree by Monica Arac de Nyeko].

I can’t imagine how hard that must have been to have that conversation with your parents. I remember coming out to my mom and that was hectic, but still private. How do you begin to have this conversation about a thing that’s going to be so public in a very homophobic country?

For our parents, we just stuck to the fiction part of it. I was like, “Mom, you watch Nigerian movies all the time.” Seventy-five percent of Nollywood is witches and zapping and do we believe in that stuff happening?. But you have to have people who are in this other dimension with you. You know the story, you fell in love with the story. You’ve cried, you were anxious, you were vulnerable. You went through all of that, so for it not to exist is even more heartache, I think. These conversations had to happen and it had to come from us. It would be worse if they found out from a friend or someone else.

There are all these revolutionary things happening around this film. This “other dimension” like you mention. There is still the larger petition coming up before the court. Do you think the ban could be lifted for good?

I think so. All art gains its honor by being oppressive at first. Like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, he had to go into exile cause his art was speaking about something that was sensitive to people who were not like-minded in society. He had to run away. That just shows you it oppresses the normal human being. It makes you uncomfortable, which is a good thing. It can make you angry, you may be completely for it, but… that’s just art, we don’t know how it’s going to make us feel.

The film retained so much honor because there is so much hard work put into it.

This thing didn’t take a minute. It’s more than an honor to be associated or even be part of this dimension. The thing also about Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, you go into exile, you come back and we’re still talking about his work. As long as that’s happening, the artist is satisfied. I’m satisfied.

Where can people watch Rafiki?

Right now you have to be able to make some drastic moves because it’s on the festival circuit, so it’s mainly in festivals.

What next for you?

I like this question because there’s actually no answer. I’m still working on my hours as a musician and thinking about roles. I’m definitely taking my time and looking forward to vetting agents in the future.

Tell me about your music.

That’s where I’m trying to gain my hours professionally. I’ve been a drummer with a band known as Yellow Light Machine since 2015. We’re like the Eclectic Live festival band. We’ve gained our fans through live performances so we don’t have any recorded music out there, but we’re working towards that. Before the end of the year we’ll have a solid plan for recording.

Anything else to add or that you want people to know.

Keep a bit or a lot of yourself in everything you do. However much you need. Every day is your best.

To find out where Rafiki is screening, follow their Facebook page. And while you wait to watch the real thing, you can listen to the bad ass all-female soundtrack.

Kari is a creative writer born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya who spent her formative years in Minnesota—where she often dreamed of warmer weather. She is an avid traveler, perpetual list-maker and sometimes performer. Her words have appeared all over the internet, on the radio and on stage. For more, check out her website, The Warm Fruit, or follow her on Twitter.

Kari has written 16 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. I am stuck in my house due to disability, but I can’t wait to see this film when it is released digitally! I am not sure when that will happen, but I will definitely be following the news closely so I can support it with my money. Thanks for covering this film on AS!

      • We were literally about to walk in to see Collette, and happened to pass by a big posterboard schedule of screenings for the international film fest, and I was like “Oh let me see if they have any gay movies…” and the screening of Rafiki had like less than 5 seats left available and it started about 5 mins after Collette finished. We ran from one end of the theater to the other and got there just in time and were not disappointed! ? It was incredible.

  2. This film is so good!! I got to see it at Toronto International Film Festival.

    Amazing to see Queer Black love on the African continent, shown on the big screen. Here’s hoping it gets a much deserved wide release.

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