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Wanuri Kahiu’s role model is an African feminist icon who dedicated her life to planting trees – and fighting the Kenyan authorities.

“She was a woman who was coming up against the government and being spoken about in the most horrific ways,” Kahiu said of environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who launched the Green Belt movement before becoming the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. “And she just wanted to plant trees.”

Swap “trees” for “films” and Kahiu could be talking about her own life.

The 39-year-old, whose works deal with themes often considered controversial in Kenya, including LGBTQ rights and feminism, is one of Africa’s most powerful filmmakers. Her mission to create art on African terms has given rise to what she calls “Afrobubblegum,” a genre that aims to tell stories of black joy, which Kahiu says has nothing to do with politics.

But over the past year, avoiding politics has become increasingly tricky. Kahiu is currently suing her country’s government, after it banned her 2018 film “Rafiki” – which later became the first Kenyan movie to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival in the event’s 70-plus-year history. The Kenyan Film Classification Board (KFCB) said the film was restricted “due (to) its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law.”

Actress Samantha Mugatsia, director Wanuri Kahiu and  actress Sheila Munyiva pose as they arrive on May 9, 2018 for the screening of the film "Rafiki" at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival.

“Rafiki,” set in Nairobi, is the tender, hopeful story of two young women falling in love, and it tackles some of the most sensitive issues facing Kenyan society and politics today.

In Kenya, gay sex is illegal and is punishable by up to 14 years in jail. Though the colonial-era law was recently challenged, Kenya’s High Court ruled on Friday it should remain in place.

After “Rafiki” was banned in April 2018, Kahiu said she saw no option but to sue the KFCB on constitutional grounds. She said KFCB’s ban violated her right to free speech guaranteed in the Kenyan constitution.

Her lawsuit is pending – the next hearing is due in June – meaning much of Kenya still hasn’t seen the film. But the case has won Kahiu international notoriety and, abroad, her career is soaring. She recently landed a gig directing a new sci-fi series for Amazon, as well as an upcoming Reese Witherspoon production featuring Millie Bobby Brown of “Stranger Things.”

Kahiu now shares an agent with Oscar-winning “Black Panther” actress, Lupita Nyong’o. But her focus remains fixed on Kenya.

“I will continue fighting this case because I know what it means,” Kahiu said. “Governments think, ‘We have the authority to silence; we will not talk about rape because it doesn’t exist. We will not talk about violence against women.’

“Freedom of speech has far-reaching consequences. I think we should all be concerned.”

Fun, fierce and frivolous

Kahiu wanted to make films from age 16, after she stumbled onto the TV set of one of her mother’s contacts in Nairobi. Her studies in business, and then film, took Kahiu to the UK and America, but she always knew she was coming home to make movies. “Always,” Kahiu repeated, emphatically.

Her early films can seem disparate. They range from “Pumzi,” a post-apocalyptic reimagining of Africa 35 years after World War II, to “From A Whisper,” which tells a story of forgiveness after the 1998 US embassy bombing in Nairobi. Her 2009 documentary “For Our Land” celebrated the filmmaker’s feminist hero and saw Kahiu finally able to meet and work with tenacious tree-planter Maathai.

But Kahiu later realized that her films featured common themes of hope and happiness. In 2015, she coined the term Afrobubblegum, a genre she sums up with the motto “fun, fierce and frivolous.”

Kahiu's sci-fi short film "Pumzi" was screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival as part of its New African Cinema program.

“It’s not that Africa can be these things. Africa is these things,” Kahiu said. “We’ve just chosen to pay attention to one thing and not the other,” she added, referring to the narrative of war, violence and poverty in Africa that, she said, is often pushed by Western art and media.

“Black Panther,” Kahiu said, can also be considered an Afrobubblegum movie: “It’s based on the African continent. It has Africans in it. It’s about Africa and it’s fun, fierce and frivolous.”

Retelling the African story

Kahiu wants to draw attention to the artists telling the story of modern Africa from an African perspective. She makes a point of wearing clothes by Kenyan designers, such as Ambica Shah and Zuri, and brands stocked at Made in Kenya, a shop in Nairobi’s hipster Parklands neighborhood. The “Rafiki” soundtrack was comprised almost entirely of modern Kenyan female artists.

Her Afrobubblegum genre is just one example of how the country’s distinct creative voice is being expressed.

Street art painted onto a footbridge near Nairobi University stirred controversy in Kenya earlier this year, as it was perceived to celebrate LGBTQ cultures. Naitiemu Nyanjom, one of the artists involved, described it as a "stairway to heaven."

At the Kuona Artists collective in Nairobi, for instance, artists including Ngene Mwaura, who has covered his studio in graffiti, and Kahiu’s sculptor uncle, Jimmy Kaigwa, have formed a hive for Afrobubblegum-style creativity. There, the flamboyant Kenyan artist Michael Soi paints Nairobi’s strip clubs in loud primary colors to hold up an uncomfortable mirror to Kenyan society. (“That’s where your husbands really go on a Thursday night,” he said.)

For Kahiu, Afrobubblegum is simply bringing attention to work that already exists.

“It’s the aesthetic of joy that has always been there. I’m not trying to make it political,” she said. “I’m trying for us to be frivolous.”

Kahiu shot photos using a disposable camera of a trip to Kuona Artists collective in Nairobi. On the right, is Kahiu's self-portrait. Pictured on the bottom left, are artist Michael Soi's works.

Politics is never far from art, though. Case in point: At Soi’s studio, a huge painting depicting a naked Donald Trump cutting the microphone cables of media networks, including CNN, dominates his space. Freedom of speech is clearly on his mind, too.

Reluctantly, Kahiu accepts that Afrobubblegum’s frothy determination not to be political, might be a political statement in itself.

“Well, being human is politics because when you’re human, you are a race, a gender, a sexuality, a class,” she said. “But if I was a white male standing in America saying, ‘I want to make frivolous work,’ it wouldn’t be political.

“I just don’t know who’s in charge of defining the political sphere and who’s in charge of designating one thing as more political than another.”

Top, a photo of items stocked at the shop Made in Kenya. Middle, artist Ngene Mwaura's graffiti-covered studio. Bottom, clothes by a Kenyan brand.

A seven-year itch

“Rafiki” was seven years in the making. During that time, as she tried to find funding and secure filming locations, Kahiu had two children, briefly landed her own TV show and left filmmaking for an office job – but quickly returned, hating the routine of a 9-to-5.

In the end, the film took just 24 days to shoot and six months to edit. Kahiu has only ever watched it the whole way through once – at Cannes.

The film is based on the 2007 Caine Prize-winning short story “Jambula Tree” by Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko. Kahiu was looking to make a film about love and said this was simply the best one she found.

“This was the most tender, the most kind, the most beautiful story I had heard. And that’s why I wanted to tell it,” she said.

That it occurred between two women was secondary, she added.

“Rafiki” contains little nudity or sexual content because the nature of a teenage romance didn’t demand it, Kahiu said. But, like all her films, it ends on a message of hope.

This is what got the movie banned. Kahiu said the Kenyan government would have passed the film with an “18” rating (suitable for people aged 18 or over) if she had altered the ending so the characters looked ashamed or remorseful. Ezekiel Mutua, CEO of the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), confirmed the ending of the film was “the bone of contention.” Kahiu was asked to edit that portion of the film, so that it didn’t not “glamorize homosexuality,” he said.

But that was a compromise Kahiu wasn’t prepared to make. Her refusal resulted in the banning of the film, Mutua confirmed. And so, Kahiu said, most of her fans, family and friends were left to assume that the film was a sexually explicit portrayal of a lesbian romance – something which could deeply offend conservative, Christian Kenya.

“People were not happy,” she said, recalling the weeks after “Rafiki” was banned. “They would avert their eyes if they saw me.”

Film stills from "Rafiki" show the director's use of pink hues.

Stylistically, “Rafiki” is perhaps Kahiu’s most bubblegum-esque expression of Afrobubblegum. From the bright pink braids of lead character, Ziki, to the luminous purples of the Nairobi high-rises where the action takes place, “Rafiki” boasts a dreamy color palette.

Kahiu said the idea was to “reclaim pink,” and other “femme” colors associated with conventional stereotypes of femininity and challenge what being a woman can mean: You can be strong and unorthodox while wearing pink.

In this lush pastel world, protagonists Kena and Ziki, the two lovers, are untroubled by money, disease or war. Their worries are the universal headaches of love, family pressure, school grades and societal acceptance, as they explore their feelings in a country that outlaws gay intimacy.

“I was exploring the idea of the choices you have to make if you are in a same sex relationship between love and courage – between love and safety,” Kahiu said. “If you choose one, you’re definitely not choosing the other.”

As Kena and Ziki’s love story unfolds to the condemnation of their families, church and peers, a helicopter is frequently seen flying overhead. It’s a reminder, explained Kahiu, that the authorities are always watching.

After “Rafiki” was banned last year, Kahiu successfully won a one-week lift on the ban in a separate case. A seven-day run was all the film needed to be considered for an Oscar nomination. 

But during that week, KFCB chief executive Mutua sent a chilling public warning to those who screened the film. “We are watching to see which public theatre (sic) will exhibit it without the Board’s approval,” he said on social media. Movie theaters and viewers didn’t seem to care – screenings that week were packed.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country is bracing for the ruling on whether gay sex will be decriminalized. Kahiu said she believes that, while public opinion appears to be divided, if the ruling goes in favor of the LGBTQ community, many Kenyans will feel safe to admit they support gay marriage.

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“When ‘Rafiki’ got into Cannes very few people said ‘congratulations’ because the film was banned,” she said. “But the moment the ban was lifted, people felt like they had the right – or they were then allowed – to congratulate me. They were allowed to be enthusiastic about the film.

“So there is something to be said about the relationship between state and people.”

It comes back to the idea of choosing between your happiness and your safety, she said. Kahiu risked her safety long ago to protect her freedom. Now, she has a global platform, and with US deals rolling in, she is ready to show the world what Afrobubblegum has to offer.

After nearly two decades in the game, Kahiu had yet to make any real money from a film before “Rafiki.”

“I feel like I’m just getting started,” she said.

This story was updated on May 24 to reflect the Kenya High Court ruling, which upheld the law banning same-sex relations.