The first romantic sequence in Rafiki, by the Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu, opens with a close-up of a pair of sneaker-clad feet on a skateboard, its wheels thumping along the asphalt. The feet belong to the teenage Makena, who arrives at her friend Ziki’s apartment building to take her out around town for the day. After Ziki’s mother answers the door, an elliptical cut thrusts the viewer into a montage sequence in which the two teenage girls sit close together on a tuk-tuk ride around the streets of Nairobi. The cut introduces a nondiegetic love song that slowly drowns away the bustling sounds of the city as the girls go on a carnival ride, pedal a boat, and dance at a club. Diegetic sound only returns during a few significant moments in the sequence: when Ziki tells Kena she wants to go “on a real date” with her, and later when they kiss for the first time—the touch of their lips louder than the song. It is only at the end of the night, when they hug goodbye on the streets, that traffic noise takes over from the song, the low rumble of the cars oddly terrifying as a man—Kena’s father, who is running for local elections against Ziki’s father—observes them from a distance. The four-minute-long montage sequence that culminates in the teenagers’ first kiss is, after all, not just sensual and romantic, but it also conveys a daring form of resistance—the affirmation and public display of queer desire—in a country where homosexuality is (still) illegal.
The first Kenyan film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival (in 2018), Rafiki was banned from circulation in Kenya due to its refusal to condemn homosexuality or punish its queer characters for engaging in their outlawed romance. Somewhat infamously, the film was granted a seven-day commercial theatrical run to meet eligibility criteria for an Oscar, only to be banned again afterward. As Lindsey B. Green-Simms notes in her new book, Queer African Cinemas, in those brief seven days, some theaters around the country could barely meet the high demand for Rafiki, and “by the end of the week, it had become the second-highest grossing Kenyan film of all time” (186).
Rafiki’s exhibition history illustrates the complex and contradictory space inhabited by queer cinema, films, and filmmakers on the African continent more broadly, where state-sanctioned homophobia largely remains the norm. In Queer African Cinemas, Green-Simms offers an insightful and illuminating analysis of how queerness can function to reproduce as much homophobia as queer desire. Focusing on a wide range of African films that depict queer subjects, she explores how both the films and their characters imagine possible futures or alternative presents that escape or transform the homophobic and oppressive realities surrounding them. For Green-Simms, even films committed to the formulaic Christian-oriented structure of Nollywood—in which queer characters are always punished or converted to heterosexuality by divine intervention—may open themselves up to readings that focus on different registers of queer resistance and queer possibilities, rather than on the condemnation of queer desire.
Green-Simms’s methodology, however, is not restricted to formal textual analyses and to reading against the grain. Conducting fieldwork in several African countries to interview filmmakers, activists, distributors, festival organizers, queer audiences, and even censors, and to attend film festivals screening queer films, she has produced an account of queer African cinemas that is concerned with both the text and its formal qualities and the ways it circulates and gains meaning in the context of African reception. Queer African Cinemas goes beyond its careful and engaging textual analysis to explore how modes of production and circulation are deeply affected by the presence of a queer thematic or simply of queer characters.
This seemingly risky and wide-ranging research enterprise enables the book to navigate different film industries (hence, the plural form in its title) in countries where queerness is at the very least—with the possible exception of South Africa—publicly frowned on. Queer African Cinemas makes an important and necessary intervention in queer studies as it works to decenter queerness from the global north and to challenge common understandings of acceptable means of resistance, affect, and representation. Adding to works by Rosalind Galt, Karl Schoonover, Ashon T. Crawley, Gayatri Gopinath, and others, Green-Simms reframes a Western conception of queerness and shows how forms of queer resistance in the postcolonial global south—where silence may be not just a necessity but also a powerful transgression—can vastly differ from those celebrated in the global north.
Broadly speaking, the corpus under analysis here includes films (and other audiovisual texts such as music videos) made in the African continent about African queer characters and hailing from nations ranging from South Africa to Senegal, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana. Despite the relative scarcity of queer characters in African filmography, Green-Simms focuses on two categories of African films. The first category is international art films, a term that highlights a particular aesthetic inclination and a shared appeal to foreign audiences. Most of these films come from South Africa and, because they tend toward a more critical stance against homophobia, their circulation is severely thwarted nearly anywhere else in the continent outside of occasional film festival screenings. As Green-Simms notes, challenges with the distribution and exhibition of queer films in Africa mean that films like Rafiki are generally unable to create counterpublics anywhere in the continent. The second category consists of popular melodramas made for local audiences, such as those produced in Nigeria. Their circulation, by contrast, is more or less guaranteed by a formulaic framing of queerness as an un-African perversion that must be corrected or appropriately punished during the course of the film. As these categories demonstrate in this case, modes of representation and geopolitical contexts here count more than the sexual, gender, and ethnic identities of the filmmakers, and whether the films ultimately produce so-called positive images or not. Indeed, for the author, to discuss queer African cinemas, it is imperative to consider their reception, “the spaces in which these films may or may not circulate,” and the fact that they “reflect and participate in the unprecedented homophobia that exists concurrently with an unprecedented resistance to it” (19). Those are, after all, the texts that ultimately circulate as queer discourses in the continent, a circulation marred by state censorship and homophobia.
What brings these films together in Green-Simms’s analysis is a focus on resistance in its multiple and sometimes conflicting forms. She is less interested in qualifying or evaluating the resistance enabled by or present in these queer African cinemas than in exploring how it takes shape. Throughout the book, she demonstrates that alongside more strategic and organized (and even more “productive”) forms of resistance exist “more indeterminate” ones—often drawing from, rather than opposing, vulnerability—that are also worthy of attention, however mundane or transgressive they may appear to be.
Green-Simms’s most fascinating articulation of this expanded vision of resistance is what she calls “Afri-queer fugitivity.” It’s a concept that follows Fred Moten’s black fugitivity and José Esteban Muñoz’s queer futurity to express a reimagining of the present, or the creation of a future in which one can be Black and queer, unimpeded by heteronormativity. Rafiki and other international art films from Africa perform this kind of Afri-queer fugitivity, with their circulation—which eludes most African audiences—becoming their mode of resistance. They also form new queer possibilities by making queer forms visible, albeit (still) in a scattered rather than geographically, culturally, or politically focused manner due to their limited circulation. This concept also elucidates how the popular melodramas designed to ostracize queerness also point to the existence and resistance of lives otherwise negated and teach specific forms of resistance, including that which is exercised in the very act of watching queerness.
In the first chapter, Green-Simms analyzes the Senegalese film Karmen Geï (Joseph Gaï Ramaka, 2001)—which offered the first depiction of lesbian intimacy in African cinema—alongside Socrate Safo’s Jezebel (2007–8), a four-part Ghanaian video remake of his most popular film, Women in Love (Safo, 1996). 1 Belonging, respectively, to the categories of international art cinema and popular melodramas, these two films focus on queer characters who disturb or actively criticize the heterosexual family and the state and engage in spiritual encounters with occult forces. Karmen Geï, a loose, avant-garde adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen, follows a structure of liberation and disruption that supersedes its character’s doomed fate, while Jezebel functions as a cautionary tale against lesbian desire.
Yet, as Green-Simms notes, these films still provide a story of “eccentricity and waywardness” that offers escape from the imposed homophobic framework (59). Indeed, queer pleasure in Karmen Geï and Jezebel has to do with experiencing the invisible, sensing the presence of the occult, as materialized in Karmen’s descendance from and Jezebel’s incarnation of the Mami Wata spirit—a gender-ambivalent, non-Christian figure that, in Green-Simms’s reading, serves as an indigenous queer model. As such, in offering entry points for queer readings, and contrary to what their narrative arcs might dictate, the films enable, rather than foreclose, queerness. In the author’s words, “audiences can take pleasure in the queer eccentricity of Karmen and Jezebel as they watch love triangles unfold and root for non-virtuous women with ties to the spiritual world” (40).
The second chapter adopts a more historical approach and focuses exclusively on Nigerian cinema. In the first part, Green-Simms analyzes three Nollywood films whose titles alone encapsulate their antigay agenda: Hideous Affair (Ikenna Ezeugwu, 2010), Men in Love (Moses Ebere, 2010), and Dirty Secret (Theodore Anyanji, 2010). All three films follow the traditional formula of Nollywood melodramas and comply with the restrictions on queer representation, painting “homosexuality as something to fear” (76).
In the second part of the chapter, Green-Simms explores films produced by the Lagos-based not-for-profit organization The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs), such as Hell or High Water (Asurf Oluseyi, 2016). Green-Simms underscores how these latter films generate sympathy, rather than the traditional spite, for their gay characters. As she explains, queer characters had long functioned in Nigerian cinema as feared deviations from the status quo, social aberrations who were ultimately quashed by the restoration of order at the films’ conclusions. But the signing of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in 2014 in Nigeria prompted TIERs to produce films that instead denounced homophobia. Here, a new axis of identification is made possible, even if films like Hell or High Water refrain from overtly advocating for gay rights in an effort to expand their audience reach and avoid censorship.
In the third chapter, Green-Simms turns to South African queer films from the 2010s, focusing specifically on Inxeba (John Trengove, 2017), Skoonheid (Oliver Hermanus, 2011), Kanarie (Christiaan Olwagen, 2018), and Moffie (Oliver Hermanus, 2019). In her analysis, these films all demonstrate the “limitations of queer masculinity at this particular moment in South Africa” (130). While uninterested in female voices and perspectives, they do challenge hegemonic masculinities, thus performing a gender revision of sorts. Organized around different meanings of “cutting,” the chapter draws parallels between the films’ editing, scenes of epidermic incisions, and sudden turns to a “queer otherwise” in an analysis that reveals deep connections between otherwise widely distinct films.
The fourth and final chapter considers two media texts—Art Attack’s music video for “Same Love (Remix)” and Rafiki—in the context of two distinct film festivals: the Queer Kampala International Film Festival (QKIFF) and the Nairobi Out Film Festival (OFF). She extends her corpus here to accommodate a unique textual form—that of the music video—that calls attention to the intertextual and transnational nature of queer African texts.
This fourth chapter is rooted in the compelling premise that queer film festivals create queer counterpublics of contestation and “otherwise possibilities” in a region notorious for its homophobia. These counterpublics, in the author’s words, engender a critical resilience for queer Africans. “Same Love (Remix),” a music and video remix of the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis song and music video, was received with palpable excitement at QKIFF one night before the festival was raided and shut down by authorities; OFF featured in its promotional posters a ticket stub for Rafiki to honor and call further attention to the film that would have been its opening-night feature, but could not be screened because of the ban.
While Queer African Cinemas opens with a nuanced analysis of the Kenyan compilation film created by The Nest Collective, Stories of Our Lives (Jim Chuchu, 2014), that highlights both its hopeful attitude toward queer visibility and its attention to an increase in queer vulnerability and anxiety in the country and across the continent, it is fitting that it should conclude with a chapter on public spectatorship. Here, Green-Simms displays an investment in the impact of these queer images—positive or not, problematic or not, conformist or not, resistant or not—and their potential to inspire counterpublics by considering the different forms in which queerness circulates across the continent. After all, it is in their contact with audiences that these films generate queer possibilities, but not without risks associated with public queerness in most African countries. Indeed, public screenings of queer films may take clandestine forms and put patrons at serious risk, but their value as a shared queer space, a site for community building, indeed for forming counterpublics, must be recognized. If onscreen queerness presents resistance in visual and affective forms, queer screenings constitute public resistance and public defiance at their most palpable. Here, as the strange case of Rafiki (the missing opening film at OFF) demonstrates, sometimes the film’s actual presence is not even indispensable to the formation of a queer public.
Bruno Guaraná: What are the origins of this project? What drove you to research and write about queer African cinemas?
Lindsey B. Green-Simms: This project has actually been over a decade in the making. It started when I was doing research for my dissertation, which was an entirely different project on car culture in West Africa and became my first book, Postcolonial Automobility. But for that project I was watching a lot of Nigerian and Ghanaian video films and I really just stumbled on a handful of “queer” films, or films where there was some sort of queer affair. When I was in Ghana doing research, I met the filmmaker Socrate Safo who told me about his film Women in Love; at the time, he was preparing a remake under the title of Jezebel. Both versions of Safo’s films were about women who join a water spirit cult in order to become wealthy even though joining the cult means they could only sleep with other women.
To be honest, I was really surprised to find these types of stories circulating in popular media. Though I found an article on Women in Love by the anthropologist Birgit Meyer, there was nothing written about the Nigerian films. So I started to dig a little deeper. I found one newspaper article by Unoma Azuah whom I happened to meet later that year at a conference in Syracuse. Unoma and I teamed up to write an article about gay-themed Nollywood films, but after that I just kept finding more and more that I wanted to write about. 2 There were the art films, too—like Dakan and Karmen Geï—that were really so different from the Nigerian and Ghanaian melodramas. It took several years for me to realize that this could be a book and then, as I was writing, several more films came out that really garnered global attention and pulled the book in a different direction.
Guaraná: How do you define queer cinema in Africa, and how did this definition shape the corpus of films you address in the book?
Green-Simms: I kept my definition as loose as possible because I was looking at the different ways queerness was portrayed in films. So I wasn’t concerned if a filmmaker was queer or making their film explicitly for a queer audience. That, to me, would have been quite limiting—though I do hope that someone else takes up that kind of project now that there is so much more media content. I looked at the Nigerian and Ghanaian melodramas—some of which were made by filmmakers who told me that their goal was to warn audiences against the dangers of homosexuality— as well as beautiful queer art films and films made by NGOs and activists in order to combat homophobia. I tried to keep my focus on fictional films (as opposed to documentaries) that were made on the African continent in order to understand what types of stories were being imagined by African filmmakers. It took a while before I found a way of analyzing these very different types together under the rubric of resistance, and even then I had to really challenge myself to see resistance as operating in multiple and even conflicting ways.
Guaraná: I am fascinated by your conceptualization of “Afri-queer fugitivity” as an approach. How is this concept useful as an analytical tool?
Green-Simms: By Afri-queer fugitivity, I mean to mark different forms and versions of taking flight, of making or dreaming of something new, of something unencumbered by homophobic violence even as that violence continues to exist. It’s useful as an analytical tool because it is one of the types of resistance I see a lot in queer African creative works. It can be something as simple as planning out a life together as queer lovers or it can mean literal shape-shifting or it can mean fantasizing about utopian islands where no one will harass you.
Guaraná: What kinds of challenges did you face while doing field research about queerness in Africa?
Green-Simms: Well, at first there was the challenge of finding all the films, especially the Nigerian ones. It’s not like you could google those! So it took a lot of talking to market vendors and filmmakers and people in the industry and hitting a lot of walls. Then, there was the challenge of setting up interviews and, every so often, of sitting through an uncomfortable interview with someone who was very homophobic. But for the most part, I found very friendly and queer-friendly filmmakers, activists, festival organizers, and audiences eager to talk, quite excited to share their thoughts and work. And also eager to have a conversation, to hear about what I was finding in other African countries or to chat about our favorite queer films more broadly. So a lot of my fieldwork felt like having an extended dialogue with new friends.
I think the hardest moment, which I write about very briefly in the book, occurred when I was in Uganda for the second Queer Kampala Film Festival that was raided by the police. The opening night had been so wonderful and celebratory—but as I was on my way to the next day of the festival, I got a message that I should stay put because the police were on their way to shut it down. Luckily, the organizers had been tipped off and were able to remove the movie screen and posters in time, but they were absolutely devastated to have to cut the festival short. It was crushing to see all of their hard work go to waste. There was nothing that I could do, that any of us could do, except just be sad in that moment.
Guaraná: Considering the routine bans and censorship practices across the continent, in what ways other than commercial theatrical distribution and exhibition do queer films reach African audiences?
Green-Simms: So much is happening online now, especially in our pandemic-era world, that these bans are becoming less and less meaningful. In the past year or two, as I was revising the book, I noticed how many more films were becoming available to rent on YouTube. Even some of the queer film festivals went online. Unfortunately, the Kenyan Film Classification Board still seems to be very intent on making it difficult for Kenyans to see queer Kenyan films.
Guaraná: How did the video boom in Ghana and Nigeria make space for the appearance of queer subjects on screens?
Green-Simms: The video boom in Ghana and Nigeria, which actually began in the 1990s, was really successful in democratizing filmmaking in those countries. In other words, you didn’t need a lot of capital or training or expertise to make a successful film. You needed a video camera, some actors, and a story with a good hook. The industries, of course, then became more and more professional, but there are still so many stories and so many films that come out that there’s really room for a little bit of everything. At the same time, though, films have to signal their genre in order to sell in an overcrowded market, so you do see cycles of films that are about punishing or rehabilitating gay characters. In a way, part of what makes them appealing is that the audiences can watch subjects be sexually transgressive but know that, in the end, they will be censured for those transgressions.
Guaraná: You also show how these films may sometimes fail to project homophobia and end up inadvertently lending themselves to queer readings that you term “otherwise possibilities.” How does this take place?
Green-Simms: Some of the films that have homophobic endings also happen to have really complicated stories. Sometimes there is real genuine love between a same-sex couple. Sometimes there are very erotic moments. Sometimes there are arguments made for acceptance and understanding. And I think all of the films wind up showing that homosexuality is not, in fact, un-African. So there are all sorts of opportunities to read against the grain. In some instances out-of-context clips even circulate online and show only the queer-affirming parts of films.
Guaraná: And then you have films that reject this homophobic framework, such as those made by The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs). Which strategies has TIERs employed to promote its queer films in an effective and palatable way to West Africans?
Green-Simms: The work that TIERs has done is, in my opinion, absolutely amazing. They have used Nollywood aesthetics, Nollywood stars, and Nollywood conventions to make films that have sympathetic gay characters and films that show how devastating the consequences can be when family members don’t support their gay loved ones. These films, such as Hell or High Water, We Don’t Live Here Anymore (Tope Oshin, 2018), or Walking with Shadows (Aoife O’Kelly, 2019), would not be considered radical by Western standards at all. They are gentle and subtle and aim to start conversations and move people beyond condemnation.
Guaraná: Has an increase in queer visibility on African screens had an impact on institutional and routine homophobia in African countries?
Green-Simms: During my research I did hear a lot of stories about how films changed minds. At the screening of some of the TIERs films, for instance, I heard about audience members who might have been a bit homophobic before but then wound up becoming financial donors for TIERs. And more than a few people in Kenya told me that they’d come out to a friend or family by taking them to Rafiki or talking to them about it. I’m not sure how large an impact these films have had but I think little by little hearts and minds are being changed.
Guaraná: What has been the importance of queer-themed film festivals across the continent?
Green-Simms: Queer film festivals in South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, and to a lesser extent Uganda have been important in creating spaces for queer audiences to simply be together, to watch themselves on screen, and to have both joyful and difficult conversations. It’s always important to hold that kind of space.
Guaraná: After your manuscript was finalized, did you come across new African films that have particularly intrigued or excited you in their representation of queerness?
Green-Simms: The 2020 film Ìfé, which was a collaboration between Pamela Adie and Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim, was particularly exciting because it was the first Nigerian film made by and for queer Nigerian women. It’s a beautiful and intimate short film and it follows neither the Nollywood melodrama conventions nor the model of TIERs, which creates films primarily aimed at straight audiences. I was able to add a short section on Ìfé in my book during my copyediting phase, so luckily it made it in there in the nick of time. I hear there’s a sequel in the works too, which I’m very excited to see. I’ve also heard some fabulous things about the Kenyan documentary I Am Samuel (Peter Murimi, 2020). I think the pandemic slowed down film production over the last two years, but I have a feeling there’s a lot more incredible content on the horizon.
- Safo’s Women in Love bears no relation to D. H Lawrence’s novel or Ken Russell’s 1969 film of the same title.
- See Lindsey Green-Simms and Unoma Azuah, “The Video Closet: Nollywood’s Gay-Themed Movies,” Transition 107, no. 1 (2012): 32-49.
BOOK DATA: Lindsey B. Green-Simms, Queer African Cinemas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022. $99.95 cloth; $26.95 paper. 264 pages.
The introduction to Queer African Cinemas is available here.
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