I Am Samuel is a portrait of a Kenyan man torn between balancing duty to his family with his dreams for his future. Set in Kenya and filmed last year in 2020 the film is hard hitting and beautifully composed. Produced by a leading collective of factual filmmakers in Kenya, I Am Samuel rounds up its international premiers in Europe and the United States closing #BFIFlare Film Festival and Human Rights Watch Festival (HRWFF). I Am Samuel is a ground-breaking documentary that throws open the door to a dialogue on gay rights and traditional values and is dedicated to queer Africans.
Filmmaker(s): Peter Murimi Country of Production: Kenya/Canada/UK/USA Year: 2020 68min
Abigail Yartey spoke to director, Pete Murimi.
Alt A: Can you tell me why you wanted to make documentaries and direct?
It’s a very long windy journey, but basically, I was at university in Kenyatta, Nairobi and was studying to be a chemistry teacher. Actually, I was a really bad student, I was failing, I was doing really badly and in the second year I dropped out of university. My dad runs a restaurant in the West of Kenya and my dad told me, if you cannot study then be a waiter. So, I was a waiter in my dad’s hotel and after six months I really hated it. I saw an ad in the newspaper for television journalism college and applied not because, erm, I like it. I applied just to run away from home and really enjoyed it! I really enjoyed it. I went there and I loved it and since then, I’ve been a television journalist, but um right after finishing school, I got attracted to doing a lot on social issues and governance issues and basically that has been my passion since. That’s what my politics aligned me to, and my films try to do the same.
Alt A What was it about this story, that made you want to make the film?
Peter Murimi. In Kenya, I started from the premise first of all that we’re all equal, and you could see someone who is a gay man being treated like he is less equal than me or any other person. I thought it was really important that I try to make a film about a gay man in Kenya but also try to show how much we have in common, because [he] is going through issues that many Kenyan men go through. One of the issues basically is his employment, he works in a construction site. We can see economically, he’s struggling like most Kenyans are, but also there’s the thing about masculinity and expectations especially if you’re a man, about what you should do. I’m not trying to say that the load he is carrying is equal to what a straight man is but there are a lot of similarities; the pressure [his] father is putting on him to the pressure fathers put on their sons all the time. So, there’s so much we have in common, these common struggles and common issues. That’s the point of this one to bring us together on these things that we have in common.
Alt A Yes absolutely – How did you go about protecting the safety of your characters?
Peter Murimi: From the beginning of the process of making this film security I think was one of the biggest issues on the agenda. It’s the thing that we have talked the most about internally when we were making the film. What is basically evident after the film was out, is Simon and Alex could not continue living exactly as they were. Like, drastic measures had to be taken for their security and – which we did, and I cannot talk about publicly about where they are after the film is out, but we had to factor that and basically, we had to make changes after the film was out.
It’s one of those things, I think even from their perspective, because after I while I can say it’s not my film, it became our film, because they participated, but also contributed a lot in the process of making it. They think the value that the community would get in a sense is much more …one could say they’ve taken a bullet, changed their lives, to have some sort of advancement for the cause. I admire their bravery and the thing is they’re starting a new chapter in their life, which also brings a lot of promise and brings adventure but also, they’re living a legacy and inspiration for many other people who are living with them in the communities. Also, I guess the validation that so many other gay men would see the film, will have so much value for them to see themselves in a story in mainstream with people talking about it. So, I think eventually we look at it wholly, as something I think it was worth it for the bigger picture.
Alt A: There are also some wonderful panoramic shots of Western Kenya where you film on the farmland which contrasts greatly with the hustle and bustle of Nairobi to Western Kenya: Tell us a bit about this?
Peter Murimi: So basically, the film is told in two locations: in the city, in Nairobi and in the village in Western Kenya and for Samuel personally, he loves the village, he grew up there but also, it’s a place where he couldn’t be himself but when he’s in the city, he found a way to make it work.
It [the city] was chaotic and dangerous sometimes, but also, it’s the place where he fell in love. It’s a place where he could really be himself – in controlled environments – so even visually it’s something that we were trying to show, in a sense. Despite all this claustrophobic narrative, it’s very claustrophobic, it’s very chaotic and it’s dangerous. Once they are in the rooms and the door closes, it was heaven in a sense.
So, the village, which is supposed to be heaven when you look at it, it’s beautiful, there’s so much space, but the body language there’s not. if you look at the village scenes, even the dialogue was minimal, it’s mostly about the body language, and what was happening especially between the father and son. There’s so much tension. Contrast that to the city where there’s laughing, there’s dancing, there’s enjoying. It was really interesting filming those two locations and how, uh, what was going on was the opposite, in a sense like the village it’s lush and green and spacious, but actually it was the place where he was tense and, in the city, yes, it was dangerous. It could be, but also, it’s a place where he was happiest in his room, in his bubble… like it’s a place where he got the most reward. So, it was really visually at the same time, trying to show this. We did it also by the dialogue; in the village, he never talked a lot. He was mostly stressed and looking and observing.
Alt A: There’s a talk in the film of a healthy denial in some attitudes around queerness; “knowing the truth, but willing to believe the lie.” Do you think this kind of understanding is helpful in the context of being in Kenya and do you think it’s perhaps what prompted Samuel to speak to his father and confide about his relationship with Alex?
Peter Murimi: I would say it’s a big issue. Actually, sometimes when parents start, I could say, suspecting or realizing that their child is queer sometimes when they encourage the child to lie, and as soon as you tell that lie, they latch onto it. Actually, they are saying – not physically in conversation, but they’re willing to look the other way so long as you maintain this lie.
There’s a saying – when a child comes out, son or daughter it’s also the family coming out to the community, and some parents are not ready to do that. They’re not ready to do that, to accept their child is gay. So, they just say, please don’t come out! (we’re laughing) Keep lying. And this will be the ideal situation. So, it’s a real problem with its obstacles but it’s the status quo they’d like to maintain. I think this film is important in a sense, because it’s trying to bridge that gap because sometimes, I think parents don’t really know what’s going on with the children. Like, in a sense, like from their point of view. They are just being selfish and thinking, ‘Oh my God, what will my pastor think?’, ‘What will my brother or my cousins think about what’s going on?’ They don’t want to pause and see what’s really going on with the child, what’s happening? Hopefully through this film, other parents can watch and basically see what Samuel and Alex and their friends are going through and hopefully now they will understand and bring that honest conversation to make it more of a reality.
Alt A How was the film received in Kenya?
Peter Murimi. Yeah. We’re planning to take it home, but not yet. It’s so far been seen internationally, it’s been seen in the States, it’s been seen in Europe. But in Kenya, previous films with LGBTQ teams have been banned. So, we don’t know what the fate of ours will be, but we will try and not just in Kenya. We’ll also try to show it around other African countries, because there are so many places in Africa where I think this kind of film can be of true value to so many people.
Alt A How does the Kenyan government support filmmakers?
Peter Murimi. Through my career when I started, there was very little support, and I can see now they’re doing so much more. The Kenya Film Commission is appointed, giving grants for people to make and develop films, fiction, documentary on that side it’s improving. And also, I can see Kenya right now is becoming like an oasis in East Africa of content. There are so much stuff and many younger people who are making amazing stuff, but the problem we have is with the film classification board.
They’re telling us their interpretation of what is right, is what should be right for a country of I don’t know, 50 million people and this a board of, I don’t know, 10 people and they’ve selected religious leaders, from the mosque, Christian leaders, and a few people, like, a board of 10 people and they decide which films should be watched and which shouldn’t.
So, if it’s a film with an LGBTQ storyline, they restrict it from the whole population. So, in terms of making films, like we’re getting really good support actually, more than any in the region, but the problem is the film classification board is a bit biased.
I think to be honest; everybody is entitled to think what is right and what is wrong. But I think the mistake here is when I interpret what’s right for me is what should be right for the whole country, that’s not good. It should allow a healthy debate to happen and diverse views to be put out to the public and we can debate it in the public arena. You cannot be squeezing it so that doesn’t get to the public. That’s the problem we have.
Alt A What was the budget for I am Samuel and what were the biggest challenges making this film?
Peter Murimi. Yeah. So, gosh, I think the producer would answer this more than me. I don’t know the exact budget, but what I do know, it was really hard to fundraise for the film. We did it over five years and sometimes we ran out of money and we had to work without money, or even sometimes try and fundraise. And, uh, because this is my first film it was really hard to convince the funders that I can finish it and we could see it through. So, it was much harder to prove ourselves to the funders, but we got there, and we’ve got some really good support from some very local funders who just pushed it all the way to the finish line.
Alt A Do you have any projects coming up with We Are Not The Machine?
Peter Murimi. Yeah. So, I have this principle, like I’m scared of publicly talking about what I’m working on until I’ve done it. I feel like I might jinx it. Yeah, we’re making a few in the pipeline somewhere… some in development, but the team is the same and trying to give voice to the voiceless, but yeah, we’ll keep doing it until the day we die.
Alt A How’s lockdown treating you? Did you have Covid-19?
Peter Murimi: It’s a bit up and down. I remember early on during lockdown, actually surprisingly I was coping really well with it and then at some point I got fatigued. No, I survived it luckily, I dodged a bullet, but I know of friends who got the virus and really struggled with it. And I know people who are really having a tough time, mentally, mental health wise. So sometimes I put it in perspective and I’m just grateful in a sense that I’m in the middle of releasing a film during the pandemic, I have managed to do the things I need to do and have managed to do some work in the middle of the pandemic. So, when I put it in perspective, I can say I should be grateful. I know it could have been worse. It could have been much, much worse.