Peter Murimi’s I Am Samuel, which has its European premiere at the London Film Festival on October 10th, is an intimate portrait of Samuel, who lives in Nairobi, Kenya, and his partner Alex. Shot in verité style, the documentary opens with footage of the two men visiting a beauty spot, a waterfall in a forest, and enjoying spending time in the natural surroundings; walking, laughing, holding hands, cut with Sammy’s voiceover. “Alex is the love of my life. We saw ourselves in each other. We belong together.” The romance of this, and its simplicity, its acceptance of both self and each other, just blew me away. I wanted to know more about these men.
What most struck me in these opening scenes was the unfamiliarity at seeing two Kenyan men as a couple, and the film explores the reasons for this: toxic masculinity, the social norming of marriage and family, and the law. Prosecution under section 162 of the Kenyan Penal Code 1930 carries a sentence of 14 years imprisonment for “carnal knowledge … against the order of nature”, as well as further penalties for other activities described in sections 163 and 165. All the offences listed seem to apply only to men and appear to be a vestige of British colonialism.
Samuel describes knowing that he was different from the age of 14, feeling the isolation within his family and beyond. Social pressure, however, forced him to conform and get a girlfriend, and he’s proud to be a father to his daughter. His parents, farmers in western Kenya, could not continue to pay his school fees, so he went to live in Nairobi where he discovered the internet and found that he was not the only person to feel the way he did.
Shot over five years, the film explores attitudes within the men’s families, with fathers that are authoritarian and unforgiving to the point of disownment or worse; but their mothers and sisters are more intuitive, accommodating and understanding. Both Alex and Samuel want to be able to be their full selves but are constantly denied this. They know that their parents delude themselves: “They might know the truth, but they are willing to believe the lie”.
There are graphic scenes of homophobic humiliation and violence exacted on one of Samuel’s friends at the hands of a mob, as well as an unseen attack on Samuel’s flatmate in a case of mistaken identity. But ultimately, the film’s message is affirmative and hopeful. There are laughter, parties (no spoilers), a new house, and more than one cake. And the film ends with another devastatingly simple statement of acceptance and love.
The film lacked an exploration of the the wider context that the men find themselves in, and I would have liked to know more about the history and politics behind social attitudes and the law, how many people are prosecuted for this offence each year, and some direct commentary, debate or opinion from the men’s families or society in general about either the men’s relationship or same-sex relationships in general. Arguably, the film is about one man – Samuel – and his relationship, but the gaps raise questions and the viewer must find the answers elsewhere. A brief online search revealed a number of organisations lobbying for the repeal of sections 162 and 165, as well as campaigning for better LBGTQ+ human rights, equality, inclusion and non-discrimination. These include the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, Inend, PEMA Kenya, National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and Human Dignity Trust.
Peter Murimi is a multiple award-winning filmmaker whose work focuses on social issues; previously he has examined HIV, mental health issues affecting men in Kenya, female genital mutilation, and more. With I Am Samuel he has created a moving and intimate portrait of a courageous couple whose relationship is surviving against all the odds.
By Karen Smith
As part of the 2020 London Film Festival, I Am Samuel is available on the BFI Player from 6:30pm BST on Saturday October 10th until 6:30pm on Tuesday October 13th. Head to the official LFF website for more details and to purchase tickets.