Inside the Psychedelic New Film Genre Redefining African Representation
Kenyan filmmakers Wanuri Kahiu, Likarion Wainaina, and Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann tell us how AFROBUBBLEGUM is expanding onscreen depictions of Africa.
Supa Modo. Still courtesy of Wanjeri Gakuru
Wanuri Kahiu's story of young lesbian love, Rafiki, made international headlines this May for being the first Kenyan film programmed at the Cannes Film Festival in 71 years of French Riviera cinema history. The significance was not lost on Kahiu. “We stood on the red carpet as young African women and celebrated the film,” she tells Broadly. “There hasn't been a space for us and I'm glad that we are creating the space and others are making space as well. It's high time we accommodated other voices.”
The most striking aspect of Rafiki is its eye-popping aesthetic—co-lead Sheila Munyiva sports a cascade of pale pink and baby blue dreadlocks, while bolder shades of fuschia and bubblegum are splashed across the production design. It's fitting that a movie as vibrant as candy should be the global calling card of the emerging genre of AFROBUBBLEGUM. (The capital letters are mandatory, Kahiu says.)
In her 2017 TED talk, Kahiu defines the genre coined by herself and her collective as “fun, fierce, and frivolous.” She defines it as a combination of the Bechdel Test (“there are at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man”) with an African Bechdel Test (“Are two or more Africans healthy? Are those same Africans financially stable and not in need of saving? Are they having fun and enjoying life?”). AFROBUBBLEGUM exists in opposition to stereotypical visions of the continent. As she puts it: “Africa is so often portrayed as hurt or dying or sad or broken. We believe that Africa is joyful and full of pride and respect and hope.”
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Others artists are free to self-identify as AFROBUBBLEGUMISTS, and have been doing so in film, music, fashion and art; the 2018 iteration of Nairobi's multi-disciplinary arts festival Africa Nouveau was AFROBUBBLEGUM-themed. Kahiu's goal for her collective is to grow the genre and “get to a stage where we can promote and curate and also support people who are making art for art's sake and not art for the sake of policy.”
Rafiki—initially banned by the homophobic Kenyan Film Board of Classification for “promoting same-sex relationships”—ended up having a week-long release in Kenya after Kahiu took the case to the High Court where a temporary injunction on the ban was granted. This brief release made it eligible for the Kenyan Oscar slot. However, that position ended up going to Supa Modo, which premiered at Berlin Film Festival in February.
Likarion Wainaina's debut feature about a nine-year-old girl with terminal cancer plays out with a tonal range that transcends its bleak premise. Jo's final days are laced with joy thanks to her village community mounting a film that allows her to perform as her alterego, the cape-and-face-paint-wearing super-hero, Supa Modo. A magical central performance by Stycie Waweru and a narrative focus on the comic foibles of her community would seem to make Supa Modo another example of AFROBUBBLEGUM.
Wanjeri Gakuru—one of Supa Modo's writers—is hesitant to apply this label to the film, although she is deeply supportive of the genre, and can see where the perspective of her film overlaps: “There’s a great line in the film where an elderly character, Nyanya, played by Rita Njenga declares: 'If she wants to be a cartoon then let her be a cartoon.' It affirms this idea of serious un-seriousness as a valid approach to tackling an issue.”
Gakuru was a journalist for six years before pivoting to screenwriting. She says that this is an innovative time to belong to the Kenyan film scene thanks to the proliferation of smartphones which have led to a boom in short films: “We’re at a stage where a lot more self-learning, experimentation and dreaming is happening.”
Experimentation and dreaming is certainly happening in the work of poet-artist-filmmaker Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann. Her films mesh with the remit of AFROBUBBLEGUM insofar as she tells stories coloured by feminist, artistic preoccupations rather than stereotypical African suffering. Her latest documentary New Moon starts as an ambiguous project set around the small coastal town of Lamu but turns into a soul-searching exploration of why Herrmann decides—in the course of making the film—to convert to Islam. Her personal wrangling forms the lifeblood of a film infused with the sincere—and ultimately human—search to make sense of a chaotic existence.
Herrmann is grateful that Rafiki and Supa Modo have put a spotlight on Kenyan film. Although she is nothing but respectful of AFROBUBBLEGUM, she doesn't believe that any one genre is the way to tell African stories. “I really hope that we can continue to create and generate more films and more importantly tell films that are authentic to us. We can't always be grouping ourselves together and saying 'This is what an African story is.' Everyone has their own authentic and individual stories to tell and that's a creative freedom we need to allow our peers to have.”
Herrmann has numerous new projects in the works. A short fiction film shot by Supa Modo director Likarion Wainaina is in post-production, as she develops a short documentary about Islamic polygamy and a fiction feature. Her through-line comes from the faith-driven values underpinning her art: “I just want to keep pushing my creativity and telling stories that are true to my heart and also telling stories that bring people closer to their spirituality and their life purpose—closer to their highest divine self.”
The future is marked with new work for Wanuri Kahiu and Wanjeri Gakuru too, although Western-centric film cataloguing sites like IMDB don't keep dibs on production developments. Kahiu is adapting her own short story Rusties written with Nnedi Okorafor, about a traffic robot who forms an attachment to a human being. Gakuru is focusing on raising funds for Supa Modo's Oscar bid while another film she co-wrote, Lusala [with another role for Stycie Waweru!] is in post-production.
As for the future of Kenyan cinema? All three women point to a need for better funding alongside creative self-development. The last words go to Gakuru. Asked whether she wants more global recognition for Kenyan filmmaking, she replies: “Sure. Why not? However, I’m more concerned with Kenyans becoming more confident in their storytelling for themselves. I’d like them to know that their voices are valid and that they can added a unique perspective to the understanding of the human experience.”