LFF ’20 — Documentary ‘I Am Samuel’ is a Touching Portrait of Queer Lives in Kenya

A still from documentary 'I am Samuel'. The image is a mid shot following behind two Kenyan men as they walk through some woodland holding some shopping bags. The man on the left wears a red and white checked shirt with jeans and a grey hoodie slung over his shoulder, his right arm is held at the base of the neck of the other man. The second man is wearing beige chinos and a purple t-shirt, with similarly short hair.

Kenya is one of 72 countries in which homosexuality is criminalised, in an outdated colonial-era law that discriminates against people ‘against the law of nature’. Peter Murimi’s first documentary feature is an intimate vérité-style portrait of a queer Kenyan couple living in a world in which their private life is other people’s business. 

I Am Samuel opens with two men in the throes of child-like joy, “this is Alex, I am Sami. Alex is the love of my life.” Immediately cutting to mobile phone footage of a man being viciously beaten in the street, we realise that for Samuel and Alex, matters of love are not that simple, the threat of severe violence looming large over the couple’s innocent and playful relationship throughout the film. Quietly and unobtrusively filmed over five years, we see Samuel and Alex navigate their lives between Nairobi and rural Western Kenya, where Samuel’s parents and young daughter live.

The contrast between outdoors and indoors punctuates the film. The couple spends time at Samuel’s family home where his stoic pastor father remains largely silent other than to reinforce his belief that marriage should be on the cards for Samuel, who he hopes will soon bring home a wife to help his sick mother with household tasks. Although chirping birds and dewy leaves categorise the time spent here, Samuel’s father’s stifling views cloud the breath of fresh air that rural life should provide, only constraining Samuel and estranging him from his family. 

Interspersed with their time in the countryside is sweetly intimate home-movie-style footage of Samuel’s tight-knit friend group in Nairobi. Although this is the environment in which Samuel feels freed from society’s constraints, they are packed into cramped apartments, a Pride flag draped over the window to keep themselves hidden from prying eyes. Behind these locked doors are honest moments of joy: Samuel’s 26th, his first time celebrating his birthday; anniversary speeches; and an engagement ceremony where a makeshift congregation gathers round watching in awe as Samuel and Alex exchange rings and commit to spending the rest of their lives together.

A still from documentary 'I am Samuel'. A young Kenyan man is the only figure standing still in this image. He stands to the right wearing black trousers and a white t-shirt, his back to the camera. He watches on over a group of friends playing with a ball. There is 3 other men in movement and one woman. It is nearing sunset in the landscape behind, and an electrical pileon can be seen to the left of the image, a Pride flag waves proudly in the distance

The cyclical nature of the harvest at the farm where “the twins” return each year represents at once the couple’s growth and also the constant, unchanging prejudices that exist in Kenyan society. Alex, who has been estranged from his family since coming out reminds us that not all families are as accepting as Samuel’s are learning to be. When asked, on a scale of one to ten, how angry his father was when he found out about Alex’s homosexuality, Alex answers “fifteen”.

The film doesn’t dwell on the horrors faced by queer people in Kenya, at times glossing over them almost too much, but rather it offers a touching portrait of Samuel and Alex’s meandering life together and Samuel’s family’s adjustment to his sexuality. It remains unclear exactly how much they know about his relationship, perhaps they choose to turn a blind eye, preferring to leave their friendly, albeit distant, familial relationship intact. 

I Am Samuel is a poignant and authentic portrayal of queer love, a heartfelt depiction of how a genuine connection can provide the strength to endure even the most severe adversities. Samuel and Alex’s story lingers long after the credits roll, just as the dangers of being queer remain a part of the lives of LGBTQ+ people living in Kenya.

I Am Samuel screened at the virtual edition of BFI London Film Festival 2020 between October 10th and October 13th

by Katya Spiers

Katya (she/her) is a History of Art & French student at the University of Bristol and the Digital Film & TV Editor at Epigram. Her favourite films include CarolFaces Places, and Sweet Bean, but most importantly Paddington 2. She also has a soft spot for anything written by Nora Ephron. You can follow her on Twitter at @katya8263718

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