Filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu Tells Stories Close to Home

Happy birthday, Wanuri Kahiu! Today we’re celebrating the incredible filmmaker behind Rafiki, From A Whisper, and Netflix’s Look Both Ways. 

Wanuri Kahiu is a filmmaker from Kenya, and known to be one of the most inspiring African filmmakers. Wanuri comes from a line of trailblazing women; her mother was one of the first female pediatricians in Nairobi, the area they lived in, and her aunt was a celebrated actress. After receiving an MFA in production/directing from UCLA, Wanuri interned for the esteemed filmmaker and music video director F. Gary Gray. During her internship, she worked on his 2003 film The Italian Job

Three years later, Wanuri came out with her debut film, a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Philip Noyce’s Catch a Fire, entitled The Spark That Unites. While making this documentary, Wanuri became close friends with Philip, and it was him who encouraged her to go back to her home country of Kenya to tell stories about it. 

Wanuri’s first feature film was From a Whisper (2008), which delves into the traumatic events surrounding the 1998 terrorist bombing of the United States Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. The film explores the impact of the tragedy on the lives of ordinary Kenyans, weaving together the stories of three main characters: a young girl who loses her mother in the attack, a middle-aged woman desperately searching for her missing son, and a journalist determined to uncover the truth behind the bombing. 

From a Whisper received much critical acclaim, including winning Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director at the Africa Movie Academy Awards. The film is characterized by visually striking cinematography which juxtaposes the beauty of Kenya’s landscapes with the scars left by the bombing, as well as a poignant emotional depth in the characters, and an authentic portrayal of Kenyan culture. 

Another film which received wide critical acclaim was Rafiki, an excellent film to watch during pride month. With Rafiki, Wanuri set out to portray a love story set in Africa and to represent the complex conditions surrounding queerness in Kenya, neither of which she felt she saw often on the big screen. Rafiki tells the story of two young women, Kena and Ziki, who fall in love despite societal prejudice and family expectations. 

By exploring the themes of same-sex relationships and LGBTQ+ rights in a Kenyan context, Wanuri fearlessly tackled a taboo subject and ignited a public discourse about love and acceptance. 

By exploring the themes of same-sex relationships and LGBTQ+ rights in a Kenyan context, Wanuri fearlessly tackled a taboo subject and ignited a public discourse about love and acceptance. In fact, the Kenyan Film Classification Board banned Rafiki for its portrayal of homosexuality, citing that it promoted lesbianism. This decision sparked international outcry, and Wanuri fought against the ban, eventually taking legal action. Luckily, the High Court of Kenya lifted the ban for seven days, allowing the film to qualify for the 2019 Oscars. 

The film was banned because Wanuri refused to portray this love story and this story of queerness with negativity; several scenes in the film indicate that to Wanuri, queer love is beautiful and hopeful, not something to be shamed, shunned, and punished. As FF2 Contributor Fiona Flanagan puts it, it is in these scenes “where the viewer sees the seed of hope planted that caused the Kenyan government to ban the film. It is these beautiful complications, in such a magnetic film, that Kihiu cements Rafiki as a modern and more conscious Romeo and Juliet.”

Wanuri possesses an unbelievable amount of fearlessness and strength in the face of forces that try to silence her stories, making her one of the most inspiring filmmakers of our time. Not only that, but the stunning shots of Kenya and the touching stories of Kenyan people show that for Wanuri, home is where the heart is, and she certainly puts her heart into her films. 

© Julia Lasker (6/21/2023) FF2 Media


Read Fiona Flanagan’s review of Rafiki here.


Featured photo: Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2DD46W7. Wanuri Kahiu posing at the Rafiki photocall held at the Palais des Festivals on May 09, 2018 in Cannes, France as part of the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival. Photo by Aurore Marechal/ABACAPRESS.COM.

Bottom photo: Courtesy of Film Movement

Tags: African Filmmaker, Female Filmmaker, filmmaker, From a Whisper, Kenyan Filmmaker, LGBTQ, Look Both Ways, Rafiki, The Italian Job, Wanuri Kahiu

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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