It was in June of 2013 when members of the famous Kenyan artist collective The NEST, started collecting stories from LGBTI people in Kenya. Eventually this process would evolve into the production of the feature film Stories of Our Lives. At the time a law was in place that in different ways made the existence of LGBTI people in Kenya very difficult. The rhetoric of politicians and other agitators in the Kenyan media, was very much concerned with the so-called “un-africaness” of homosexuality and other sexual orientations, identities and genders that fall within the LGBTI umbrella. The members of The NEST collective started asking themselves what it was to be queer and Kenyan. This became the start of a work ultimately collecting over 250 stories from individuals across three cities and five towns, as well as in the country side. Earlier today I sat down to speak to screenwriter Njoki Ngumi and production designer Sunny Dolat about the work and process behind the film, but also about it’s importance to the LGBTI community in Kenya.
From the onset, Stories of Our Lives was intended to be a film made for the LGBTI community of Kenya. This is perhaps apparent in the very title of the film. Our lives. About half of the people involved in the project were in fact themselves part of the community. At first, when the work began, no one had imagined it becoming a project of the magnitude that it ended up becoming. The team started by asking friends for their stories, but soon it was decided that a wider net needed to be cast, one that would cover a broader experience across the nation. This was in part due to the team realising that the whole project by its very nature was an important counter-narrative to all the stories being told about LGBTI people from those that would do them harm. The questions they asked were very straightforward: How did you grow up? How was it or is it living in the closet? How was coming out for you?
Due to the precarious situation for LGBTI people in Kenya, as in most countries around the world, all the interviews were collected anonymously. Though the film itself only portrays five of the over 250 stories collected, there is also a book coming out soon, which collects a large part of them (read more about that further down). So, why these five stories, out of so many? The answer is very simple. They were chosen because the team could immediately visualize them. But there is more which strikes me with the five stories, Ask Me Nicely, Run, Athman, Duet, and Each Night I Dream. They all carry a sense of power and hope, a sense of strength in agency. This is not immediately identified by many journalists, Njoki Ngumi, tells me. Instead it is a sense of desperation that they see. We talk about the ways in which the people of the stories make choices that will give them strength, that will confirm their identity, that perhaps also in a sense, will make them feel safe.
Alex Rodallec: Watching the different parts of the film there is always a feeling that all is not lost. In all five stories there is a sense of strength in the characters, that they’re going to make it through. Even if it’s, like in the last one, by dreaming away. Was this something that you consciously sought for?
Njoki Ngumi: That’s a really beautiful thing for you to say, first of all. I spoke to somebody very recently, and she asked, why are all the endings so sad? And we were like, well we don’t think that happy endings have to come with a prince or a princess on a chariot bearing a ring, you know. There’s a lot of, it may be bittersweet, but there’s a lot of happiness in choosing yourself and choosing, being able to choose that even in a very difficult situation. So like for the kid that was beaten up by his best friend and had to run away, to the kid that was in love with his best friend that couldn’t love him in the way he wanted to be loved. And these girls who imagined a different future for themselves. And for this girl who had to go on her own journey to discover if she was really gay or not, whatever the journey was like or how politically incorrect it may have have been. You know all those things. I think for us, seeing a Kenyan queer person with the resolve to choose their outcome, whether it is a sad outcome or not, but there is a lot of agency in choosing it, rather than seeing them as a victim of circumstances, I think that was really special for us. And I hadn’t really seen that until now. That’s definitely a thing that mattered to us.
AR: Yeah, because I didn’t find, I mean obviously the stories are sad in a sense, you know, where it’s like you break up what is a life already and you have to make a sacrifice, but for me there was always in that “I will never do this again” or “Now I know”, “Now I know who I am”. Like in the first story, now I know this relationship is not gonna happen, but now I know who I am, and no one can dispute it.
NN: That is the kind of story we were getting from the people who we interviewed. There is a whole bunch of them, a whole lot of that in the book. A bunch of stories of people confronting very homophobic parents, or very homophobic work colleagues or friends, and finding ways to navigate this difficult situation and still maintain such, such grace, and such strength, and such self-possession. Even in all the stories where people have been defeated by difficult things that have set out to break them and succeeded. Or even people who have found a way to kind of have a relationship with the person that they love, even if they are very deep in the closet, and they are very aware of what those choices mean for them. So we were really moved by this kind of presence in one’s own life, you never get that sense of a queer person’s presence and their choices in their own life especially from the kind of stories that the media like to tell. So, it’s always, “look at the gay people just gaying away”, you know. Or, “look at them, they are disobeying god”, or whatever it is. But no, that’s not what life is.
Stories of Our Lives first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and this was not because the production team originally wanted a foreign premiere, but it came as a consideration of the risks involved. The team had long talks with the festival about premiering the film anonymously. While debating the issue they also consulted with a fellow Kenyan artist, the famous writer Binyavanga Wainaina, a close friend of theirs, who beside his authorship is well known for taking a stance to live openly gay in defiance of climate in Kenya. For those who are interested in his writing, Binyavanga Wainaina will be one of the guests at Stockholm Literature festival on the 25th of October. Binyavanga Wainaina immediately raised an issue with The NEST, that for all the conscious efforts of protecting the members of the team the anonymous premiering of the film might work against them by insinuating shame. This was taken to ear by the production team and a final decision was taken: they would have to come out publicly. What made matters even more complicated was that some of the team members had not even done this with their families. It was a decision that would have a major impact on both their personal lives as well as the reception of the film.
The film was received to critical acclaim at TIFF, and has subsequently won many awards. When a premier in Kenya was being planned matters to took a dramatic turn. The team realised that community screenings would be impossible due to the demand coming from the buzz around the film, and so they had to seek a rating to screen it publicly. While trying to obtain a rating from the Kenya Film Classification Board, something which is normally done in an afternoon, but took four days for Stories of Our Lives, the team was called in. Fearing a backlash, they left the car running outside of the offices. In the letter they received the film was rated restricted. They would not be able to show it privately, publicly, sell it or distribute in any way, shape, or form. A whole lot of negative press also followed, which was due to the reason for the ban, being that it “promotes homosexuality contrary to Kenyas national norms and values”.
AR: What did you think when you read the decision?
NN: Of course the idea of promoting homosexuality is very odd, as though somebody can stand on a street corner and hand out flyers exhorting passersby to become homosexuals. But it kind of digs into the conversations that we’ve never been able to have around this in our country, where people imagine that you can be able to be clouted into a “gay lifestyle”, you know. This letter kind of reflects that.
Not only was the film restricted, but a week later the Department of Film Services filed a suit against executive producer George Gachara, who was subsequently arrested. Gachara was charged with not having sought the permits required for filming – something which in Kenya is regularly done after the fact. The charges were finally dropped conditionally, that is with the reservation that they may be opened at any time.
It is in this climate that the need for measures, such as a community film like Stories of Our Lives, are still urgent. Though the case was dropped, and the anti-gay law has been ruled unconstitutional by the supreme court of Kenya, the situation for LGBT people in Kenya is still precarious. The UN has recommended several measures, and a 2011 report from the Kenya Human Rights Commission documents violations against the LGBTI community, such as extorsion, rape, harassment, even by the police, which Njoki Ngumi tells me are still common.
NN: For us the interesting space is the human space, because it almost doesn’t matter what people say in courts or in newspapers or what they say in whatever, because people are still being beaten up in the alleys near their homes. People get thrown out of their homes by their relatives. People get fired from jobs. People are kicked out by landlords. And so for us the interesting space is the cultural space, the place where the law can’t enter. It almost doesn’t matter how much society or people is against abortion, if a woman doesn’t want to carry a child to term, she isn’t going to do it. So for us the interesting place for all these conversations is the cultural space, where people stop performing their powers and privileges and are just people, and we are actually interested in the questions there. Which is why artistic output for us can be such a powerful thing.
AR: Even having access to putting out information in a cultural space is a power, a very big power for a smaller community to have.
NN: For sure. And it is a power that people often ignore, because the power that everybody’s looking for is the one where you can go and speak to the president. All of that gets a lot of stuff done, but then people at the end of the day do live in human spaces, and so it is in human spaces where people are trying to change. We’ve had all these stories, among the stories that we were told, about parents that started out as the biggest homophobes and ended up embracing their kids, and saying, “You’re my kid, fuck everything, you’re my kid. Let’s figure this out one step at a time”. And then they just keep offending one another, but there is this fundamental love. And so for us this is the space we try to reach. Where a mother can have all this stuff that she believes about the bible, but still have this kid, and find a way to love this kid. Or where this kid can be able to have all these weird and hostile quarters, and be able to live a very beautiful and gracious life, or be able to walk away from the nonsense.
AA: Your film has received great critical acclaim, and you’ve been interviewed by a great number of journalists. What is the worst question you’ve gotten?
Sunny Dolat: “Oh my god, it must be so difficult to be queer in Africa.” They’re like the ones, America and Europe, that supposedly have had all these great laws and advancements, but in spite all of that there is still a lot of discrimination and hate crime.
AR: Oh, it’s rife. Don’t even think anything else, it’s not safe.
NN: We also get asked, “Oh, you guys must really want asylum!?”
NN & SD: OH, yeah, oh god…
NN: And we’re like
NN & SD (In chorus): NOOOOOOOOO!!!!
NN: Though we of course understand and respect that some people may need to do so.
Our conversation carried on into the issues of race, and the power of perspective. Amongst the many beautiful things Njoki Ngumi and Sunny Dolat shared with me that I do not have the space to recount, was that this film turned The NEST collective into a family. I highly recommend that you watch this film, and follow The NEST collective closely. It is an artist collective doing amazingly beautiful things in several art forms.
– Alex Rodallec
For those of you living in Stockholm, Sweden, tomorrow at 3pm the book Stories of Our Lives; a selection of queer Kenyan narratives, will be presented at The Swedish Institute – Svenska Institutet, Slottsbacken 10 – at 3 pm. George Gachara and Jim Chuchu, the executive producer and director of the film, will be present to talk about their work. Book a seat here.
For those of you who haven’t bought tickets to the screening of Stories of Our Lives this Saturday at Helios 13 in Stockholm, which will feature Jim Chuchu and George, and Kultwatch’s own Fatima Osman, you can do that here.