Saturday 13 October 2018

Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018)

The Netherlands Film Fund and the Hubert Bals Fund both have a hand in Rafiki, which screens at the London Film Festival today and tomorrow.  While its intentions are sound, unfortunately this year's BFI Flare Special Presentation is at best a serviceable drama which, even at well under 90 minutes, stretches out its thin and overly familiar story.  A bit more urgency would have been welcomed in a film which features some appealing performances, yet doesn't really give its actors enough to do.  The lively opening credits signal a fun, vibrant piece of work, but it doesn't take long for the film to run out of steam.

Kena and Ziki are two young women who start the film on very opposite sides: their politician fathers are running against each other in an upcoming election, although the film, surprisingly, doesn't delve into the dads' political stances .  The girls seem most wary of each other, and the situation escalates when Ziki and a couple of her friends tear down some posters promoting Kena's father.  Things rapidly mellow when the politicians' daughters get together over a drink and, upon realising that talking to each other is actually good fun, hostilities come to an abrupt end.  So far, it's engaging stuff, but the film soon becomes a bit of a slog as it essays the subsequent story of Ziki and Kena, with every development telegraphed way in advance.  The two leads are quite good, but it all feels too underpowered to really resonate in the manner clearly intended by director Wanuri Kahiu.  This is a pity, as there's obviously the kernel of a good idea here which never really evolves into anything very meaningful.

Where Rafiki (translated as 'friend' in the opening titles) really does succeed, however, is in its capturing of the atmosphere of the Nairobi neighbourhood in which it's set.  The shots of the bustling, colourful streets make for fascinating viewing, yet all too often we're pulled away from this interesting milieu, which proves most frustrating; Kahiu has an obvious knack for capturing the sights and sounds of the Kenyan capital, and it's a shame that this couldn't be channelled into something more productive.  The film does have something important to say about attitudes in present-day Kenya (it was initially banned in its home country), but it's too simplistic to have much of an effect, and when a message is wrapped this clumsily it will struggle to travel very far.  Thus, Rafiki stands as a squandered opportunity, although its cast and crew may well have better work than this in them; a degree of talent is clearly evident here.  But what we have this time around, unfortunately, is a film which deserves your goodwill but not your time.

Darren Arnold