The documentary is an intimate portrait of an everyday Kenyan man whose love puts him at odds with society and family expectations—all set against the backdrop of a country that criminalizes homosexuality.
“Cinema Africa” is your guide to African film. Writer Ciku Kimeria is highlighting new movies and documentaries that tell fascinating stories or questioning prevailing narratives and occasionally returning to the classics that paved the way for a new generation of filmmakers.
Samuel grew up in the Kenyan countryside, where tradition is valued above all else. He is close to his mother but his father, a local pastor, doesn’t understand why he isn’t married yet. After moving to Kenya’s capital in search of work and a new life, Samuel falls in love with Alex and finds community and belonging. Despite the threat of violence in the city and of rejection by Samuel’s family in their rural home, the couple move between their co-existing worlds, hoping to win acceptance in both. Samuel’s story is one that award winning director Pete Murimi, and well-acclaimed producer, Toni Kamau, beautifully portray in their recently released documentary, I am Samuel. The documentary was edited by Ricardo Acosta C.C.E and Phil Jandaly, two well regarded editors in the international film community.
Filmed in a vérité style over five years, the documentary was made possible through grants from Sundance, Hot Docs, IDFA Bertha, Oak Foundation, Heinrich Boll Foundation, Good Pitch, Afridocs and Docubox. Docubox, headed by award-winning Kenyan filmmaker Judy Kibinge is a documentary and fiction film fund for African filmmakers. Judy also serves as an Executive Producer on the project along with Peter Mudamba and Oscar winning director Roger Ross Williams.
On a three-way call with Murimi and Kamau, Okayafrica film columnistCiku Kimeria, discusses with the duo the inspiration and key themes of the documentary. I am Samuel recently premiered at 2020 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival and will be at the upcoming Human Rights Watch Film Festival and available to US audiences most of this month.
Murimi’s motivation for telling this story is based on his own experiences as a young man. “My own father’s expectations of me were that I would go into business, marry someone preferably from my neighbourhood or community and that we would have children. I did not fulfill any of his wishes and it made me think of African expectations of masculinity and what a man “should” do and the weight of family expectations.” Of course, his own circumstances are different from Samuel’s, a closeted gay man living in Nairobi with his partner, knowing that the revelation of his sexual orientation, will tear his family apart. However, he can understand the burden of not being able to follow the path your parents carve out for you. As a filmmaker, his work has focused on telling stories of the marginalized and especially those that make viewers question the prevailing narratives. He adds, “It is very rare for a poor, uneducated gay man to be given a platform to tell his story from his point of view, particularly in Kenya where such love is not accepted by society. Money and privilege can buy some privacy and security if you are gay, but Samuel has none of that.” In Kenya, homosexuality is still criminalized under colonial-era laws. People who identify as queer aren’t able to love or live openly, and face the threat of assault, abuse and discrimination. Kamau, on her part, uses her production company, We are not the machine, to also tell stories of outsiders. “As soon as Pete called me about this project, I knew that we had to work together,” she says.
Conservatism and Religion
The discussion brings us to a theme that is quite dominant in I am Samuel. Samuel’s father is a pastor and therefore Samuel’s sexual orientation goes against his father’s religious beliefs and convictions. What is equally fascinating is that Samuel is also quite religious and extremely conservative. Kamau says, “This was just the reality of who he is. We are used to people being either one thing or the other, but here we have a man who is conservative, traditional, religious and gay. None of his identities obscures the other. He is not the image people have when they think of a gay man, and I think this is an important part to capture.” Reflecting on the othering that society normally has of LGBTQIA+ individuals, she adds “It’s easier for people to believe that they don’t exist or that if they do, they are completely removed from normal life. Samuel will make hopefully make Kenyan audiences question this belief.”
Coming Out and Acceptance
In the course of the five years of filming, Samuel finally does reveal his identity to his family and the expected fallout is painful to watch. Moving from having a close relationship with his family to having his father not speak to him for close to a year is difficult for him. Finally, there is a form of acceptance that comes from his family – one that they will not discuss the matter again and that they somewhat accept his partner as a friend of sorts. This element brings us to the discussion of the contextualization of coming out. “In the Western context, coming out means fully publicly declaring one’s sexual orientation. For majority of those in this community in different African countries, the most they can hope for is revealing their true identity to close family and friends. Most times this still comes with the risk of losing their family. Murimi adds, “Acceptance means different things to different people. In the context where homosexuality is criminalized in most African countries, where public sentiment against the community is generally very hostile and where violence against members of the community if they are discovered is quite common, most people can never come out in the form that people do in the West.”