"Stories of Our Lives" is an excellent, hour-long anthology film featuring five shorts about queer life in Kenya. The film will screen Feb. 13, at 6:30 p.m. at Scribe Video Center. After the screening, there will be a livestream Q&A with members of The Nest Collective, a Nairobi-based arts initiative, which collected personal stories about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex Kenyans that prompted the film.
The program is being held in conjunction with a University of Pennsylvania seminar in Africa and media studies. Dagmawi Woubshet, professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, acknowledged, "Queer African cinema dates back a few decades — Mohamed Camara's 1997 film 'Dakan' being a notable example. But in recent years, we have seen a new wave of films that explore queer African life with great texture, complexity and daring. The Nest Collective's 'Stories of Our Lives' is one powerful example of this new wave of queer African cinema. What's particularly unique about the program is that we see a range of Kenyan queer life, from gay to lesbian, urban to rural, realist to speculative, underscoring the expansiveness of what it means to be African and queer."
The public is invited and encouraged to see the anthology film at Scribe.
The shorts address the difficulties of being queer and out in Kenya. There are depictions of shame, denial and acceptance, as well as episodes of homophobia and violence and a few tender exchanges between same-sex couples.
"Ask Me Nicely" concerns two students, Kate (Kelly Gichohi) and Faith (Janice Mugo), whose affections gets them into trouble; in "Run," Patrick (Paul Ogola) faces a difficult situation when his friend Kama (Allan Weku) catches him at a gay club; "Athman," set in a farming community, has Ray (Tim Mutungi) admitting his love for the title character (Maina Olwenya), his straight best friend; in "Duet," Jeff (Mugambi Nthiga), a Kenyan man, hires Roman (Louis Brooke), a sex worker, for a night; and "Each Night I Dream" features two women, Liz (Rose Njenga) and Achieng (Judy Gichohi), who need to keep their relationship secret.
Janice Mugo (left) and Kelly Gichohi, (right) in “Ask me Nicely”
Each film is artfully made, in crisp black and white. The visuals are striking, from claustrophobic scenes that mirror being closeted, to seductive, slow-motion come-ons. There are moments of harsh realism, passionate kisses and even a folkloric scene, as when a character walks backward around a tree to change genders.
"Stories of Our Lives" shows queer Kenyans bravely acting on their same-sex and queer feelings, and risking — and more often than not, experiencing — heartbreak to live authentically. The shorts address issues of jealousy and hiding. One speech at the end of the film considers how laws allow for LGBTQ Kenyans to be harassed, evicted, blackmailed and lose their jobs. In addition, they can be excluded from their families just for being queer.
As "Stories of Our Lives" suggests, it is because of culture, tradition and religion that homophobia persists in Kenya, but one can apply that worldwide.
The strength of The Nest Collective's work is that it gives visibility to queer life in a country where it is dangerous to be out. Telling these stories of hardship and desire are necessary to combat fear, generate empathy and understanding, and help change attitudes about homosexuality.
"In the film, the narrative connects being out within the Kenyan community. I see the same connections in America, with shame and coming out and not being accepted," said out gay Marcellus Armstrong, the program manager at Scribe Video Center.
Armstrong appreciates the different and layered vignettes in "Stories of Our Lives," especially the fact that none of the stories are resolved. He said, "They don't have a climax or an ending. But they are a view of someone's life."
What is more, the emotions on display in each short film are real and relatable for many in the LGBT community.
"It is really familiar," Armstrong observed. "I can connect with the stories because I've gone through the coming out process, and not been accepted, and had a friend's rejection based on sexuality. When you see that in films, I think, is there anything else besides my struggle as a gay man? Is that all that I am? I like that these vignettes have tender and intimate moments that I can relate to. Who hasn't had unrequited love and desire?"
Armstrong cites "Athman" as his favorite entry in "Stories of Our Lives." One of the most powerful moments in the entire anthology has the main character, Ray, wondering if it would hurt more to be near Athman, the straight man he loves, or move away from him.
Armstrong also likes "Duet" for being a story about a sex worker and the Kenyan man who hires him, that eschews the typical gay narrative. "Oftentimes, you would be waiting for the [sex worker] to take advantage, or there would be violence, or explicit sex. But that's not needed." The story is arguably the most positive in the compassionate anthology.
And the need for positive images is essential. Armstrong insisted, "There is not just a lack, but an invisibility of queer people of color, and queer people of color within countries that are not American or European."
Films like "Stories of Our Lives" seek to change that, and it is why the program demands to be seen.
"Stories of Our Lives" will screen Feb. 13, at 6:30 p.m. at Scribe Video Center, 3908 Lancaster Avenue.