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Kenya's Samantha Mugatsia Snags 'Best Actress' Award for Her Lead Role in 'RAFIKI' at FESPACO 2019

The continent's most prestigious pan-African film festival acknowledges a queer character despite 'RAFIKI's' home country maintaining its ban on the film.

FESPACO, Africa's oldest and largest pan-African film and TV festival returned to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in its 50th year—making a statement during it's highly anticipated prize ceremony that closes out the festivities.

The festival presented Kenya's own Samantha Mugatsia the award for 'Best Actress' for her queer character Kena in Wanuri Kahiu's Cannes-favorite RAFIKI, BBC reports.


All eyes were on the film last year, as Kahiu fought tooth and nail for her film to be screened in Kenya, especially for the opportunity to make the film eligible for an Oscar nomination. The Kenya Film Classification Board briefly permitted the film to be screened for a week in September 2018, but has since maintained its ban, claiming the film "seeks to legitimize lesbian romance."

'Rafiki' - Official Trailer (Exclusive) youtu.be

For FESPACO to acknowledge this film and give it its due praise despite its controversy surrounding archaic laws and schools of thought around the need to support queer Africans, is simply huge.

"It's quite overwhelming, but I feel like this such a pivotal time in Kenya and in Africa to create discourse about societal issues," Mugatsia says on Newsday on winning the award. "I'm proud that RAFIKI and the cast and everyone that has been part of this or has been supporting us is able to create...a safe space."

She continues:

"It's a very pivotal time, especially for the Kenyan law system in the sense that the constitution was promulgated in 2010 and we emphasized a lot on the bill of rights and people being able to express themselves. Besides RAFIKI being a queer film, the first fight begins with artists being able to write stories that they can and make films that they want to."

For Kahiu, this award is also a moment to acknowledge the need for freedom of expression on the continent.

"We have the right to tell our stories, because they are precisely that—ours," she says on Twitter. "We have the right to have all voices heard because they are ours. We have the right to create, because that's how we share our humanity with the rest of the world."

RAFIKI is inspired by the 2007 Caine Prize Winning short story "Jambula Tree" by Ugandan writer Monica Arac Nyeko, where it asks whether it's safer being invisible or if it's better to defy conservative rules, while discovering one's identity and destiny through love. In the film we meet Mugatsia's character along with her co-star Sheila Munyiva, who plays Ziki. The two young women fall in love despite the odds stacked against them.

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