50.50: News

How a queer Kenyan film is outpacing homophobic colonial censorship law

‘I Am Samuel’ is blocked in Kenya, but its filmmakers have found other ways to get their message across

Soila Kenya
Soila Kenya
19 March 2022, 12.01am
‘I Am Samuel’ follows the lives of Samuel Asilikwa and his partner, Alex, two gay working-class Kenyan men
I Am Samuel. All rights reserved

The makers of a banned gay Kenyan documentary are finding creative ways to bypass the censors and get the voices of their subjects heard.

Director Peter Murimi’s 2020 documentary, ‘I Am Samuel’, depicts two lovers in Nairobi who face persecution and rejection – as well as finding joy in their queer community and rebuilding relationships with their family.

In September 2021, the Kenya Film and Classification Board (KFCB) blocked the screening of the film, issuing a statement calling it a “clear and deliberate attempt by the producer to promote same-sex marriage as an acceptable way of life”.

But the ban doesn’t extend to other media, allowing Murimi to appear on podcasts that can be listened to worldwide, such as ‘On the Sofa with Esther’ and ‘All Of It’, to speak about the film.

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The filmmakers have also put together a printed discussion guide to encourage audiences to have impactful conversations about the film.

‘I Am Samuel’ follows the lives of Samuel Asilikwa and his partner, Alex, two gay working-class Kenyan men. “In Kenya, privilege buys you security,” said Murimi, “so it’s much better coming out as queer and rich rather than queer and poor.

“The voice of the lower class was missing and it was so important to get that narrative out – not just for Samuel and the general public’s information, but more so for queer people who have never seen themselves on a screen or as part of Kenya.”

Colonial-era penal code

Same-sex intimacy is criminalised in Kenya and this is not the first time the KFCB has banned a film with LGBTQ+ themes.

In 2018, ‘Rafiki’, the first Kenyan film to debut at the Cannes Film Festival, was similarly banned by the regulator for depicting a fictional story of a lesbian couple.

The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, an organisation providing legal services to the LGBTQ+ community in Kenya, accused the KFCB of overreach.

“In their press release, the board states that Article 165 of the penal code outlaws homosexuality, which is not factual,” said communications officer Annette Atieno.

“The law outlaws same-sex intimacy – actions and not identities. This last part speaks to a considerable amount of the problem. These sections of the penal code are assumed to criminalise and ultimately dehumanise LGBT+ people, which opens the door to stigma, discrimination and violence against the community.”

My motto is to give voice to the voiceless, and in Kenya the voice of the LGBT+ community is muted

Peter Murimi, 'I Am Samuel' director

Article 162 of the penal code also says it is a felony for any person to have “carnal knowledge of any other person against the order of nature”, or to permit “a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature”. The ‘offence’, a relic of Kenya’s colonial-era law, is punishable by 14 years’ imprisonment. LGBTQ+ rights organisations in Kenya have tried to get the rule abolished, but the Kenyan High Court upheld it in 2019.

‘I Am Samuel’ premiered for free to African viewers in October 2021 on South African documentary production and distribution company AfriDocs, but the ban means Kenyan viewers are unable to access it. The documentary, which is filmed in Swahili with English subtitles, has gone on to be screened at more than 25 festivals worldwide.

“It’s much more important for Africans to watch this film than it is for people worldwide, so that’s why it was important to provide the film for free on the continent,” said Murimi. “Especially as it is a narrative that is rarely told. I thought it was really important to have that engagement with African audiences.”

‘I Am Samuel’ depicts two lovers in Nairobi who face persecution and rejection
I Am Samuel. All rights reserved

Murimi has refused to let the ban stop him, and said other efforts to dodge the censors are taking place behind the scenes – albeit in secret.

“My motto is to give voice to the voiceless,” he said, “and in Kenya the voice of the LGBT+ community is muted. That’s why I think it’s our responsibility [as journalists] to represent everyone in our community and that’s what keeps me going; to make sure every single voice is represented.”

Social media has also provided a space for a higher level of freedom of expression. Through the hashtag #IAmSamuel, the LGBTQ+ community and its allies, film enthusiasts and the general internet community were able to have meaningful discussions amid an outpouring of support.

Find out how to watch ‘I Am Samuel’ at https://www.watchiamsamuel.org/.

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