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New York Reunions, Coming Out in Kenya and Iranian Womanhood: Week One at BFI London Film Festival

Updated: Mar 3, 2022

by Ge Allan


The 64th BFI London Film Festival has begun and with it, as expected, comes a digital streaming lineup plus some physical events in London.

This year's much anticipated films include ‘Nomadland’ by Chloé Zhao, ‘Ammonite’ and multiple Steve McQueen films. But to start, we kicked off our festival watching some directorial debuts right from the comfort of our beds.

Still: 'Farewell Amour' (2020; dir. Ekwa Msangi)

‘Farewell Amour’ (dir. Ekwa Msangi)

We kicked off with the gently moving debut by Tanzanian-American filmmaker Ekwa Msangi. We begin by seeing New York taxi driver, Walter, picking up his estranged wife Esther and teenage daughter Sylvia, who he has not seen for 17 years due to the Angolan civil war.

Esther expects for them to pick up where they left off and be a family ‘as god intended’ whereas Walter is stuck in his previous adjusted life. He split up with his girlfriend for the reunion and is discomforted by Esther’s devout prayer and church-going that he is now forced into. Instead, he occasionally drinks red wine and enjoys salsa dancing in beautiful suits.

Through a subtle storytelling device we fill in the gaps and explore each character's experience of events, coming to understand why Sylvia is so reserved and why Esther relies on the church so much.

The film does devolve into somewhat cliched and saccharine devices, where Sylvia’s repressed desire to dance becomes an overdrawn metaphor for the family’s internal struggles. Despite this, each character is given time to be fully fleshed out and the use of light is wonderful.

Something often noted by people of colour is how many cinematographers and directors do not understand how lighting works on black skin. However, here the cast are exquisitely lit, alternately in rich warmth or blue light, techniques recognisable from films such as ‘Atlantics’ or ‘Moonlight’.

While an imperfect film, this affecting debut shows empathy with the many refugees or immigrants who have left their home country for better things and are faced with the harsh reality of life in the US.

‘I Am Samuel’ (dir. Peter Murimi)

Still: 'I Am Samuel' (2020; dir. Peter Murimi)

Over five years, director Peter Murimi followed Samuel, a gay man from a rural village in Kenya who has gone to live in Nairobi and is in love with his partner Alex.

However in Kenyan law, being gay is punishable for up to 14 years. We see shocking footage of Samuel’s friend being brutally attacked for being gay, horrific slurs and rocks thrown at him.

Over the course of this vacillating documentary, Samuel explains his life as we see him functioning through Nairobi; working hard at two jobs and having fun with his many gay friends, with whom he discusses being queer in Kenya.

He also visits his parents who don’t know he is gay and believes him and his friend Alex are close friends. His Mum calls them twins for how close they are and alike in character. Alex however gets attacked at one point in the film after they both come out to their respective parents and we understand the very real threat the community imposes on anyone suspected to be gay.

While the depiction of being gay in Kenya is fascinating, the film can be rather slow and confusing at times. We never realise the passage of time until we see Samuel’s small child from a previous (forced) heterosexual relationship now a young woman, and his family later accepting Alex into the family.

While the verité style and unexplained changes in Samuel’s life are a choice of the filmmaker, there are no discussions of the issues faced day-to-day as a gay man. What made his family come to accept him? How is Alex affected by the attack? Samuel suddenly starts preaching at a church with his father and Alex begins to be called Henry, both for unexplained reasons. Without some filling in of the gaps we are left without much understanding of the issues deep rooted in Kenya or a deeper connection to the subjects.

180° Rule (dir. Farnoosh Samadi)

Still: '180° Rule' (2020; dir. Farnoosh Samadi)

Iranian director Farnoosh Samadi’s directorial debut is a striking yet very bleak affair, reminiscent of icy European filmmakers such as Thomas Vinterberg or Michael Haneke.