I Am Samuel – We talk to director Pete Murimi about his new documentary

I Am Samuel is showing at BFI London Film Festival from 10th October to 13th October

In 2019 Kenya’s High Court ruled against LGBTQ campaigners seeking to overturn archaic laws that criminalised gay sex. The case filed in 2016 marked a watershed moment in LGBTQ representation. However, despite the efforts of brave campaigners, their bid for equality failed. But, the gates had tentatively opened in the exploration of laws imposed by the British prior to independence in 1963. While opening the door to discussion, significant cultural barriers remain for Kenya’s LGBTQ community, from the differing perspectives and views between big cities and smaller villages to ongoing attacks on those who are or are perceived to be homosexual.

The result of this continued discrimination and persecution is the forced acceptance of double lives. However, there is hope in Kenya and wider African states that the fight for equality and inclusion is growing as generations change. From the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Angola, the Seychelles and Mozambique to the slowly developing confidence of LGBTQ+ communities in many African cities, change is coming.

It is here where Pete Murimi’s directorial debut, I Am Samuel finds its urgent voice as his camera follows two young Kenyan men, Samuel and his partner Alex through the trials and tribulations of family and community acceptance. I recently caught up with Pete Murimi to talk about the making of I Am Samuel and the importance of bringing Samuel and Alex’s journey to a whole new generation.

Hi Pete. Many thanks for talking to us about the brave, poignant and powerful I Am Samuel. Can you tell us how you came to tell the story of Samuel and Alex?

I had a personal motivation to tell a story about LGBTQ people in Kenya because someone very close to me was struggling to come out to their family. I met Samuel through a mutual friend, and he was also keen to tell his story. He said when he was younger and didn’t know any grown man who was gay, he thought he was alone. Samuel thought it was important for the next generation to have an example of a gay Kenyan man to who they could relate to.

The bravery of Samuel, his family and his partner Alex is clear throughout; how did you dovetail the need to tell their story with a wider need to ensure their safety?

The safety of all the contributors was very important. It was always a tricky balancing act, but we developed a deep mutual trust where everyone felt safe within our relationships. We have a comprehensive security plan that we are implementing at the moment, of which we can’t go into details. But, we think we found the right balance to tell the story in the way that we all wanted and still keep everybody safe.

The film opens with a stark and uncomfortable reminder of the persecution many LGBTQ people still face in Kenya. The attack on one man and the mobile phone footage attached are both shocking and deeply upsetting. Do you know what happened to the man in the footage? And how important was it for you to start the journey by reflecting on ongoing human rights abuses?

The man in the footage is a very close friend of Samuel, and thank God he recovered and moved to a safer location. Our film is a celebration of love, but we wanted to show a complete picture of living as a gay man in Kenya, and felt it was important also to show the risks and things that could go wrong.

The High Court ruling against decriminalisation of gay sex came during the filmmaking process, but despite this hammer blow to campaigners, do you feel the drive for equal rights will continue to build momentum?

I think so. It’s more of a marathon than a sprint, but change will come eventually. The LGBTQ activists in Kenya have been doing a fantastic job of challenging the decriminalisation law in court. Even though they lost, they are appealing, and because people are speaking up, more and more gay individuals are coming out and claiming their space as Kenyans.

Britains colonial past means that many of the laws used to persecute LGBTQ individuals and communities originated under our rule. Ultimately meaning that Britain has a responsibility to help further LGBTQ rights as much as possible. Do you feel Britain and the wider western-world are doing enough to challenge and change human rights in countries like Kenya? And what more could be done?

If an outsider came to talk about human rights, many Kenyans would say you are imposing your culture on us. But when I criticise the abuse of LGBTQ Kenyans in a weird way, my word has more weight because I am a Kenyan as well. Internal criticism is taken more seriously than external criticism, so the fight for gay rights has to be internal, and we, as Kenyans, have to do much more to further the rights of LGBTQ citizens.

Samuel and Alex’ relationship is both touching, heartwarming and beautiful to witness. Do you feel there is growing community confidence among LGBTQ people in Kenyan cities? And how does the experience differ from city to rural life?

In the city, it is much easier to network and to, meet and connect. Samuel and his friends have basically created a bubble, and the film gives a sort of insight into life inside that bubble, but very few people have access to that – and out of fear, the bubble is not often very visible. In rural areas, it is much more difficult to meet and network with the LGBTQ community. Partly it’s because the population is sparsely distributed while the city is densely populated.

Family expectations and stereotypes of masculinity appear to sit at the heart of many of the barriers to acceptance. In your opinion, what interventions are needed to further challenge views of what masculinity should be?

Society’s expectations and roles need to be abandoned, and we should be allowed to thrive as who we are as individuals. In the film, Samuel is expected to marry and continue the family line. If we don’t fulfil these roles, it can lead to conflict and depression, and these clashes are the source of very many problems for a lot of individuals in Kenya. Expectations from our communities also lead to toxic masculinity.

It is clear that Samuel holds a passionate religious belief but also seeks to create a more inclusive society. How important was it for you to reflect on the ability of religion and sexual orientation to co-exist in harmony?

It is important not to put people into boxes. As Samuel shows us, he is very Christian, he is very African, he’s conservative, and he’s gay. Normally, people would not expect those identities to co-exist, but in this film, it shows they often do. We as humans are complex, and putting people in boxes ignores a large part of that complexity and doesn’t represent us as whole human beings.

Finally, can we ask how Samuel and Alex are getting on? And what is next for you?

They are still together and are really happy to share their story with the world. I am in the early stages of developing new projects. Let’s see what happens.

Find out more about I Am Samuel here.

YES – In conversation with Tim Realbuto

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