Actress in Banned Lesbian Film 'Rafiki' Wins Award

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(CNN) 'Rafiki', a movie premised on a love story between two women may be banned in Kenya, but it is receiving accolades from movie lovers abroad.

Kenyan actress Samantha Mugatsia was named the best actress at Africa's biggest film festival for her lead role in the movie. Mugatsia, who played the lesbian character Kena, won the award at the Fespaco Film Festival in Burkina Faso on Saturday.

Fespaco, the French acronym of the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, is Africa's longest running film festival and it celebrated its 50th anniversary this year.

Rafiki which means "friend" in Swahili was banned last year by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) for "promoting lesbianism."

The ban was temporarily lifted by a Kenyan court after the film's director Wanuri Kahiu filed a lawsuit challenging the initial ruling.

Kahiu's lawyers argued that banning the film violated her constitutional right to free speech and free expression as an artist.

The court order allowed Kenyans watch the film for a week and made it eligible to be submitted for the Best Foreign Language film at this year's Academy Awards.

According to the Academy's rules, a film must be shown in the country where it was produced for seven consecutive days to be eligible.

The film also received support from other countries as festivals in the UK and Nigeria screened it.

The movie made history as the first Kenyan movie to premiere at the Cannes film festival.


(Movie still from 'Rafiki')

Inspired by the 2007 Caine Prize short story winner "Jambula Tree" by Ugandan writer Monica Arac Nyeko, 'Rafiki' is the story of friendship and tender love that grows between two young women amidst family and political pressures, according to the film's promotional material.

Kenya is a deeply conservative country where homosexuality is criminalized in the country's penal code and is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Prompted by public uproar, the police arrested two men in 2015 and conducted forced anal examinations on them to prove they were gay.

Last year, anal examinations were ruled unconstitutional by a Mombassa court of appeal. The court found that conducting forced anal examinations on people accused of same-sex relations is illegal, according to Human Rights Watch.

The ruling reversed a 2016 High Court decision that had upheld the Kenyan authorities' use of forced anal exams on men suspected of being gay.

A court in Kenya is expected to deliver a long-awaited ruling in May on whether to strike down colonial-era laws banning homosexuality in the east African nation.

The board said 'Rafiki' had same-sex scenes and undertones which were not in the script initially submitted for approval.

The director was asked to remove the scenes but she refused, KFCB said in a statement.

The KFCB added that foreign sponsors who intend to introduce and normalize homosexuality in Kenya through movies should desist from such acts.

"Kenya is a country with a culture, beliefs and shared values which must be respected," it said.

"Hare-brained schemes by foreigners funding film producers in Kenya to promote homosexuality in the name of equality and inclusion will be exposed and strongly resisted," a spokesman for the board said.

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