Writer: Peter Murimi and Ricardo Acosta
Director: Peter Murimi
This documentary about gay life in Kenya begins with scenes of a brutal and real homophobic beating of a man, one of Samuel’s friends, who has been exposed for being gay. Coming right at the start, it serves as a painful reminder of how brave everyone involved in Peter Murimi’s groundbreaking film is, especially its main subjects Samuel and his partner Alex.
Samuel lives in Nairobi, and has to work two jobs to get by. In the daytime he works on a construction site while in the evening, he teaches netball, a sport he is good at if the trophies on his shelves are to be believed. The Kenyan capital doesn’t just give him wages, it also gives him a community and he seems happy, if not quite so keen to party like his friends. He misses his parents, who live in Western Kenya working on the red soil.
Sometimes he returns with Alex, his boyfriend for over a year. It’s not clear what his parents think of Alex at first. Do they see him as their son’s lover, or his best friend? Eventually they think of him as Samuel’s twin brother. It’s not an ideal resolution, but one born out of compromise that perhaps can fit in with their religion.
For Samuel’s father is a Christian preacher, and when he prays either in the church or in the home, he’s an energetic and fiery speaker. At other times he says very little, and seems content to watch on wisely. Samuel also says very little, and Murimi’s film makes it plain that father and son are very much alike. Indeed, Alex is more relaxed in front of the camera; he speaks more, he doesn’t avoid eye contact. Samuel, caught between duty and freedom, is very difficult to read.
We see more of the Kenyan countryside that we do of Samuel’s face: the corn fields and the river where children are baptized. In Nairobi, there are endless shots of washing slung over balconies or of boys playing football on wastelands. They communicate life in the country more than Samuel does, a taciturn subject for a film.
The meditative feel of the 70-minute documentary, as Samuel ponders in the yard of the house his father has built for him, ultimately provides dignity to the men who are risking their lives in being interviewed or filmed at Samuel’s awkward parties. These men are tied to their families and to the land in ways that the West cannot really understand. Murimi’s quiet film is a labour of love, and a lesson in self-respect.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October