Rafiki really encapsulates the spirit of the Women Make Film series,” TCM host Alicia Malone says. “It’s rule-breaking, it’s risk-taking, it’s highly entertaining to watch.”
And, as the series suggests, it’s a movie made by a woman, Wanuri Kahiu, an award-winning Kenyan filmmaker.
“[Kahiu] has a very strong voice,” Malone continues. “[She’s] someone who should be more well known than she is.”
That includes Kahiu’s home country. When Rafiki was released in 2018, the Kenya Film Classification Board banned the film “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya.” Anyone caught with a copy of Rafiki could be jailed.
Thankfully, that didn’t scare away international film festivals, notably the programmers at the Cannes Film Festival, which screened the film in the Un Certain Regard section in 2018—the first time a Kenyan movie was invited. Acclaim followed, and Rafiki gathered followers.
“It’s a beautiful love story between these two young girls who are daughters of political rivals,” Malone explains. “It shows the awkwardness of a first love experience as something that’s very relatable and universal.”
Those three words, “relatable and universal,” describes TCM’s Women Make Film series in a nutshell—100 films from around the globe providing glimpses into corners most American audiences never consider. And, as the series has shown, the further a movie feels removed from your personal experience, the more chance it has to resonate through similarities.
For Malone, a lot of that ties into the two themes presented the night Rafiki broadcasts: Bodies and Sex.
“You see the main character in this film, this young protagonist [Kena (Samantha Mugatsia)] she dresses in a very tomboy-like fashion … she’s much more comfortable in those kinds of outfits,” Malone says. “[Then there’s] a moment in the film where she puts on a dress and her mother says: ‘You look like a proper woman now.’
“It’s playing with the idea of what a woman should look like, especially a woman in that society where they say—in the film—‘Good Kenyan girls make good Kenyan wives.’”
Rafiki exists in a patriarchal society. How Kahiu depicts the divide of women fitting in and women standing out is part of what Malone finds fascinating. Ditto for Kahiu’s approach to sex.
“[Rafiki] is a film that has these really sweet romantic sex scenes where you don’t actually see anything,” Malone says. “The passion starts, and then it cuts to the next scene.
“It really makes you think about how women portray sex scenes,” she says. “The romance is very universal because it’s very awkward.”
And it’s restrained.
“People often ask me if I can tell a movie is directed by a woman. I think the only time I can tell is during the sex scenes,” Malone says. “It varies from film to film, but [to generalize], women-directed sex scenes are often more internal. They’re often more about the emotion of what is happening rather than the fantasy of what it looks like.”
But sex and society aren’t the only things Kahiu wants us to see differently.
“Her aim is to make colorful, vibrant, energetic films from Africa that are fun, fierce, and frivolous,” Malone says (Kahiu calls it “Afro Bubblegum”). “She’s spoken about how that itself is a political act because the type of stories we often see from Africa and about Africa are about some of the larger issues that take place there … war, poverty, famine, AIDS.
“And while those things are very important, it colors your view,” she continues, “of what the [continent] and the people are like.”
As Malone points out, an African love story like the one in Rafiki “is very hard to come by.” She knows: Malone has devoted her life to the movies. Born in Canberra, Australia, Malone started a film club as a high schooler and tried to badger the students to join. They didn’t, but it didn’t deter her. A journey to Sydney followed along with odd jobs working for Channel Seven. In 2007, Malone pitched the idea of hosting a movie-centric show, which set her on a path to Hollywood, where she is now a full-time host on TCM, and author of two books: Backwards and in Heels and The Female Gaze.
Which brings us back to TCM’s Women Make Film series and the pleasure of discovery. As Malone says, she’s sought out these films wherever she goes, and yet, there are still so many more to see.
“It’s the excitement of new discoveries, as well as being maddened by the fact that these films and these filmmakers aren’t more well known,” she says. It’s “Exciting and also frustrating.”
A version of this interview was first published at BoulderWeekly.com, “A fun, fierce and frivolous political act.”