Wanuri Kahiu. (Photo/ Felix Kavii)

Social media and internet forums function as an important space of contestation for issues relating to queer identities. This is evident in reactions to two fairly recent queer-themed African films, one from South Africa –Inxeba/The Wound – and the other from Kenya – Rafiki.

The films were met with diverse responses, from government bannings and cultural backlash to enthusiastic viewers and international awards. On social media and internet forums, reactions differ from those of state institutions.

These various responses should be understood against the background that in many African countries, with the exception of South Africa in this case, queer sexualities are criminalised and deemed ‘unAfrican’. Many argue that homophobia itself is unAfrican and a relic of colonial laws and mores.

In my research, I have explored the fact that African queer lives are complex and don’t tell a single story. By viewing these films as popular social texts it became clear that government censorship has been unable to stop support for them or the discussions they generate, especially online.

In Africa, films have become popular social texts. The informality of circulation, and affordability of pirated films, has ensured that film has overtaken literary or text-based genres in influence in many parts of Africa.

Films like Inxeba (2017) and Rafiki (2018) can function as popular social texts in that they can ask questions about social issues – in this case queer lived experiences on the continent. Popular social texts appeal to large audiences. It is against such sociocultural and political backgrounds that the reception of the films Inxeba and Rafiki should be understood.

Inxeba was directed by John Trengove and was released in 2017. It tells the story of how queer sexuality is negotiated within the cultural space of ulwaluko, the Xhosa people’s rites of initiation into manhood. Two young minders engage in a gay relationship and a love triangle develops.

Rafiki was directed by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu. It centres on two young women who fall in love in Nairobi after meeting because their fathers are contesting the same election. Inxeba presents picturesque images of the natural world. Rafiki offers a kaleidoscopic depiction of urban spaces. These vibrant depictions contrast with the gloomy lived experiences of the protagonists.

On its release, the South African Film and Publication Board banned Inxeba. Rafiki met a similar fate when it was released. The films were perceived as socially incorrect.

The reactions of these state boards highlight a reproduction of nationalist ideas that queer sexuality threatens African values. In thinking of these homophobic institutional reactions, it is important not to dismiss Africa as homophobic and primitive especially in relation to the West. In his book Kenyan, Christian, Queer, theology scholar Adriaan van Klinken explains that by considering Africa as backward and conservative there is a failure to reflect on the complex sociopolitical realities on the continent.

The upshot is that banning the films affected their circulation – both low budget films with seemingly limited distribution channels.

Although Inxeba and Rafiki were banned in their home countries, they have received critical acclaim and numerous awards at film festivals the world over.

The screening of the two films (both were ‘unbanned’ on appeal – Rafiki for a brief period) has been important in initiating overdue conversations. Both films gesture towards the need for open discussion of queer sexualities and genders in Africa.

They demand viewers to rethink not what it means to be queer in Africa, but what it means to be human.

Inxeba and Rafiki are invaluable additions to the growing corpus of African films courageously depicting queer lived experiences. Although initially banned, their reception by viewers in and outside Africa has shown that they can start conversations on diverse social issues relating to non-normative African gender and sexual identities. Through evoking emotions of discomfort, the films compel audiences to question their own views and biases on gender and sexual identities.

- The writer is an Associate Professor, University of Zimbabwe. This article was first published in The Conversation.