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► I Am Samuel is streaming on digital platforms
Given the controversies that surrounded the release and reception of Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki (2018) in its home country (where it was initially banned by the Kenyan Film Classification Board for its “clear intent to promote lesbianism”), the emergence of another Kenyan film focusing on LGBTQ+ protagonists is to be welcomed in itself.
Unlike Kahiu’s portrait of two young women falling in love in Nairobi, Peter Murimi’s I Am Samuel is not a fiction feature, though. Rather, it’s a documentary focusing on a gay construction worker and netball coach as he attempts to negotiate parental expectations and a new relationship in the context of a deeply homophobic society in which same-sex acts remain criminalised. Modest in length and scope, the film takes a gentler approach than might be expected, and may be dismissed as too polite by some. However, what I Am Samuel lacks in bite, and in certain contextualising detail, it makes up for in open-hearted intimacy.
The film is especially skilful in delineating Samuel’s position between urban and rural spaces. His life in Nairobi, where he and his partner Alex are part of a gay community (albeit one under constant threat of violence and harassment, as shocking video footage of a friend’s beating makes clear), is juxtaposed with his visits to his village in western Kenya. There his mother and father, the latter a pastor, work on the land, viewing his relationship with Alex as a close friendship. Samuel’s decision to come out to them structures the later part of the film; a key early scene presents him and his friends sharing stories about families’ reactions to homosexuality. As the men manage to laugh together about their experiences, a strong sense of camaraderie and resilience is conveyed.
The film’s title suggests a nod to I Am Michael, Justin Kelly’s 2015 drama about Michael Glatze, gay activist turned anti-gay pastor. But part of the quiet subversiveness of Murimi’s film lies in the way in which it presents a more productive integration of identities. Samuel is seen to accept his sexuality without renouncing his faith, finding value in both the traditional and the modern worlds he inhabits.
Murimi’s direction tends towards the unfussy but shows some visual flair in striking overhead shots (of cityscapes and of a crowd massing for a river baptism), elegant zooms and a tracking-shot of Samuel as he runs through the city. Indeed, the film is considerably stronger on ambience than on political context, paying close attention to its subjects’ daily routines, and capturing tender moments between Samuel and Alex. There are, however, some frustratingly under-explored elements, especially Samuel’s relationship with his daughter and ex-girlfriend.
The tentative hopefulness of I Am Samuel’s perspective tilts into uplift with the inclusion of Eric Wainaina’s theme song ‘When Darkness Comes’, with its decidedly on-the-nose lyrics: “This love we have is against the law / But who can judge a thing so pure?” The track isn’t subtle but Wainaina’s voice expresses the sentiments with heartfelt conviction. Like the film it scores, the song’s emotional directness and generous spirit prove hard to resist.
Rafiki first look: the risk-taking lesbian romance banned in Kenya
This fresh and courageous coming-out drama from Wanuri Kahiu deserves to be seen, especially in its home nation where, as the film shows, homophobia is rife, writes Amy Taubin.
By Amy Taubin
Sight & Sound June 2021
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