‘It’s about love’: Kenyan filmmaker says he’ll appeal a government ban on his LGBTQ doc

The World
A still from "I Am Samuel" scene at sunset on a farm in Kenya.

A still from "I Am Samuel," a documentary film that was banned by the Kenyan government. 

Courtesy of "I Am Samuel"

In Kenya, the government has banned a documentary that explores the struggles of a young, gay Kenyan man.

The documentary, "I Am Samuel," took five years to put together and was made by journalist and filmmaker Peter Murimi. 

Kenya's film board said the documentary blatantly violates the country's laws that criminalize homosexuality and same-sex marriage and that the storyline was "a clear and deliberate attempt to promote same-sex marriage as an acceptable way of life."

Related: In Kenya, LGBTQ activists await court decision on gay sex

A still from the documentary film "I Am Samuel."

A still from the documentary film "I Am Samuel." 

Credit:

Courtesy of "I Am Samuel" 

Meanwhile, the film has received rave reviews as it makes its way around the world at various film festivals. 

"Although it is not illegal to be queer and to fall in love, homosexual intimacy is criminalized under colonial-era laws," Murimi said on the documentary's website. "People who identify as queer aren't able to love or live openly, and face the threat of assault, abuse and discrimination."

Related: New documentary follows LGBTQ people fleeing persecution

A still from the film "I Am Samuel" features a scene with Samuel and his father.

A still from the film "I Am Samuel" features a scene with Samuel and his father. 

Credit:

Courtesy of "I Am Samuel" 

Murimi was also moved to make this film because the voices of gay and lesbian youth go unheard and "their issues are rarely discussed in the media or by mainstream policymakers," he said on the website.

"It was very important for this film to capture the reality of being poor and gay in Kenya, an experience shared by millions of LGBTQ+ people around the world."

Murimi joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss the film and plans to appeal the ban from London.

Marco Werman: Peter, what is the basic storyline of your documentary? 
Peter Murimi: It's about love, and it's basically a story of a young man, a young man who grew up in the countryside, went to the city, fell in love. But also, it's a story about the parents who really struggle to deal with their son's sexuality. And it's eventually also a love story between the father and son and how, eventually, the father accepted his son for who he is. And this is very representative of very many Kenyan gay men right now.
Two years ago, the Kenyan government banned another film about an LGBTQ couple that was called "Rafiki," a drama about two women. Why did you think it would be any different for your movie?
I was a bit optimistic because this is a documentary and "Rafiki" was a script which turned into a film — and then the government was like, yeah, this is an agenda, because the director had a storyline that they were pushing. But I was telling a story about real people. This is real life. Nothing is scripted. And I'm a journalist. So, I thought censoring journalism — even if you don't like the message — you cannot censor journalism. So, I thought, although the [Kenya Film] Classification Board's decisions before have been homophobic, I thought, this being journalistic, it would pass the test and Kenyans would be able to see it.
Are you appealing the ban? 
The law actually should be changed. The law is a really bad law because it gives so much power to the Classification Board. If they think "Donald Duck" is inappropriate for Kenyans, they can restrict it and they have the power to do that. We are going to appeal [the ban], but also in the court of public opinion because two things need to change in Kenya: Definitely the law needs to change, but also, the public needs to have very constructive dialogue about LGBTQ+ rights, but also about freedom of expression and censorship. So, we're going to have this debate and let's see what progress we make.
In this digital age we're living in, Peter, how effective can Kenya's ban be? I mean, won't Kenyans be able to see your movie online anyway?
The world is changing so fast. And obviously the law is not keeping up with how fast the world is changing. The thing is, because I'm Kenyan, most of the production companies are Kenyans — the crew, the producers are all Kenyan — so many people who worked in this film are Kenyan. So, the truth is, if we could just put it online and stream it in Kenya, it could be fine. But we could have legal responsibility, and we're Kenyans. And we're intending to appeal it and return to fight, but we'll fight within this law that would jeopardize us and would [land us] in jail because the penalty's stiff — it's five years in jail. So, it's not a joke. It's really stiff.
What about the rest of Africa? Are you aiming for distribution across the continent?
This is the beauty actually of this digital age. We are going to release this film for free across Africa — every country in Africa from the 13th of next month can watch the film.
Are you concerned, though, that some countries will try to shut down access to the streaming service that "I am Samuel" is available on?
That is possible, but what we're willing to do is deal with it on a case-by-case basis. But we have an advantage. We are not legally — there's no jurisdiction over us because we are Kenyans. So, if any country, for example, Zimbabwe, complains, it's much harder and [more] difficult for them to pull it down. 
Tell me a bit more about Samuel, the subject of the documentary. What's his life like these days? Is he in any danger, given that he's Kenyan?
So, he's not in Kenya anymore. He's doing well. He's starting a new chapter in his life at the moment.
Did Samuel leave Kenya because of concern over the reaction he could get from the film?
Yeah. During the making of this film, it became very clear that when we released this film, it would not be safe for him legally to be in Kenya.
Peter, I'm curious, did you set out to make a political film almost to test the Kenyan government?
It's the opposite, because [with] this film, I really tried to keep away from the politics because I knew how flammable that issue is, talking about marriage, talking about LGBTQ+ rights. So, I made a very personal story. It's a love story. It's a very personal story about someone you can see [how] he struggles. He works [on] a construction site, and he has to deal with expectations of parents, like we all do. So, this is a very personal story [that] ended up being political. But my intention was completely the opposite.

"I Am Samuel" film poster.

"I Am Samuel" film poster. 

Credit:

Courtesy of "I Am Samuel." 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.