Kenyan Court Lifts Ban on LGBTQ Movie “Rafiki,” Making it Eligible for the Oscars

Kenya’s LGBT community is celebrating after a ban on a film accused of “promoting lesbianism and homosexuality” was lifted by a High Court on Friday. The film in question, Rafiki, is a love story between two women and has already made history as Kenya’s first entry into the Cannes Film Festival. While it has thrilled audiences globally since its release in April, even receiving a standing ovation at Cannes, the film had been banned for broadcast or exhibition in Kenya making it illegal to not only watch it, but also to be in possession of the film.

The film’s director, Wanuri Kahiu, took the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) and its CEO, Ezekiel Mutua, to court with the backing of the creative community and LGBT individuals who opposed the ban. The KFCB has, over the years, attempted to repress LGBT stories in Kenyan media and as recently as last year, its CEO called for two male lions photographed appearing to have sex to be submitted to counseling.

In her lawsuit, Wanuri alleged that her constitutional rights, including the right to freedom of expression and freedom of media had been violated and that the ban had resulted in lost revenues totaling over 8 million Kenya Shillings (over $80,000), for which she is seeking compensation. Wanuri also asked for a temporary lifting of the ban to allow the film to be screened in Kenya to make it eligible for submission to the 2019 Oscars. For a film to be submitted in the Foreign Language Film category, it is required to have aired commercially in its country of origin for at least seven consecutive days before the submission deadline of September 30th, 2018.

In its limited ruling on Friday lifting the film’s ban through September 30th, the presiding judge tore apart the Kenya Film Classification Board’s decision to ban the film under the guise of preserving Kenya’s morals. Judge Okwany stated, “I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society that its moral foundation will be shaken by seeing such a film.”

She also stated that the court’s role was not to determine the morality or acceptability of homosexuality but whether artists can create art that features gay themes and characters. In making her decision, the judge referred to an 18+ rating that had been issued by KFCB experts but ignored by its CEO in favor of a complete ban. Judge Okwany went on to state that “no one was being forced to watch the film,” and that “only willing and consenting adults” would be allowed to watch it. The court’s decision was welcomed on social media, with many ridiculing the KFCB’s CEO and his moral crusade.

The film premiered on Sunday morning in Kenya with many of the screenings already sold out. LGBT individuals have also been raising money to support free tickets for queer Kenyans who want to watch Rafiki. This will be the first time in Kenya’s history that a film with openly lesbian themes will be screened commercially. Meanwhile, LGBT activists in Kenya are awaiting a ruling on a case challenging sections of Kenya’s Penal Code that make same sex intimacy a crime punishable with up to 14 years imprisonment. That case returns before to court on September 27th, when a ruling date is expected to be given.


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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 12 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. “I am not convinced that Kenya is such a weak society that its moral foundation will be shaken by seeing such a film.”

    A very good and key point.

    Particularly I’m always surprised when you see these “moral” actions, like this one from the KFCB. My surprise comes from the fact that these people assumed that all humans are children with limited capabilities and rationality (take abortion, for example: if you make it legal of course this means that you would go around the country forcing women to have one). So politicians/lawmakers and such assume you’re a moron and the people who support these kind of actions doesn’t seem to care. In my case, I go ballistic when people assume that.

    • That’s what comes naturally from an authoritarian and patriarchal social structure though. We see it here all the time but it has become somewhat less blatant over the last fourty or so years, in the first world at least.

      It does seem to be shouting its way back to prominence now that the Right is feeling safe and comfortable again.

  2. Suck it, Mutua! As a queer woman living in Kenya and dating a Kenyan queer woman, I am so happy that Rafiki will be seen. My partner exists, despite people like Mutua denying her existence. Go have fun “airconditioning hell”, Mutua. Maybe just do us all a favour and stay there while you’re at it 🙂 Hongereni watu wa Rafiki, tuko pamoja✊🏾✊🏾✊🏾✊🏾✊🏾🌈🇰🇪

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