‘I Am Samuel’ and the fight for gay rights in Kenya: “It’s not safe for them here”

Peter Murimi’s powerful documentary tells of a young Kenyan couple’s love in the face of homophobic violence and persecution

Shot in verité style over five years, Kenyan director Peter Murimi’s absorbing documentary shows us the heartwarming tenderness of a couple named Alex and Samuel. It’s a film that ennobles humdrum small lives, but in a country where gay sex is punishable by prison and LGBTQ+ people are victimised and vilified, the mundane becomes extraordinary and inspirational.

Kenya inherited their anti-gay laws – which can result in up to 14 years imprisonment – from their colonial leaders and persecution of sexual minorities remains rife. At the start of I Am Samuel we’re shown harrowing cameraphone footage of a man being savagely kicked, punched and taunted by a rabid mob after they discover his sexuality. Characters within the film talk with chilling resignation about their own family dispatching attackers to “teach them a lesson.”

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Murimi – who wants his documentary work to shine a light on the unseen, marginalised and vulnerable in society – was inspired to make I Am Samuel after meeting someone who was torn between balancing his duty to his family with his queer identity. Then, through a mutual friend, he was introduced to Samuel.

“Samuel wanted to get his story told,” says Murimi, who won the CNN African Journalist Of The Year award for his first film, Walk To Womanhood, which dealt with female genital mutilation. “His motivation was that when he was aged 13, he thought he was the only gay person in his village because he had not seen any man openly saying he was gay. It was important for Samuel and his friends to share their stories because they said it couldn’t get any worse. Whether there are cameras there or not, they’re attacked and beaten.”

Samuel was raised in rural Kenya, which values tradition above all else. He is close to his mother, but his deeply religious father, a local pastor, can’t understand why he isn’t married yet. After moving to the capital, Nairobi, to find work, he falls in love with Alex and discovers strength in a community of other gay men. Murimi feels that Samuel is a “pioneer” in that he is a queer Kenyan who has come from poverty, but now has a platform.

I Am Samuel
Peter Murimi, director of ‘I Am Samuel’. CREDIT: Bohemia

“Society is really hostile to people being openly gay, but the biggest problem is the class divide,” says Murimi. “If you’re middle class and wealthy, that buys you some protection because your house is isolated, you have a bigger compound and you can be who you are within confines. But if you’re poor – like Samuel and the majority of gay men in Kenya – it’s more difficult because you’re living in confined spaces so it’s hard to keep a secret. And if people find out, the results can be fatal.”

Murimi, a straight man who sees himself as an LGBTQ+ ally, says the hardest part of the film to shoot was the aftermath of a vicious assault on the couple in their home. “When they got beaten up and had to move, I just thought: ‘If that was me, I’d move to another country’,’” he sighs. “But they just moved to another estate and continued with their life. Although it was difficult to watch, it was inspiring because of their strength and resilience to keep being true to themselves despite the difficulty.”

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While the beating heart of the documentary is Samuel and Alex’s unshakable love in the face of fear, it also paints an against-the-odds portrait of the complex bond between father and son. When Samuel’s father, Redon, discovers his secret, he struggles to cope. But by the end, a détente is reached. There are no teary conversations or hugs, just a quiet, stoic, unspoken acceptance.

“What I hope this documentary shows is a different kind of acceptance,” says Murimi. “In Kenya, your father will not sit across the table from you and have a heart-to-heart. The first generation will not talk about emotions with their children. What you saw on screen is acceptance in the African context – the father knows what’s going on, he’s embraced it, and he says you can come here with your boyfriend and be who you are. Now both the father and mother hope this film can be a lesson to other parents struggling with the same issue.”

I Am Samuel
‘I Am Samuel’ tells the story of a young Kenyan man and his partner, Alex. CREDIT: Bohemia

Last year, LGBTQ+ activists in Kenya found a bid to repeal laws criminalising gay sex rejected by the high court. They are now appealing the ruling and Murimi is hopeful for change. “We’re going to have LGBTQ+ rights in Kenya, but it might take 10 years and that’s too long,” he says. “There’s a strong, organised and vibrant movement in Nairobi who are giving people safe houses and legal aid. Rather than giving up and going into hiding, they’re fighting for their space and saying ‘we’re here, we’re as Kenyan as you, and we want our space.’ As a storyteller, I hope my film contributes to that movement.”

For everyone involved in I Am Samuel, the stakes are high. There is a comprehensive safety plan in place for its release should this sweet and gentle movie prove politically incendiary. Murimi reveals that Samuel and Alex have since relocated. “Kenya’s not safe for them – especially when the film comes out.”

Even so, the filmmaker wants viewers to see hope in Samuel and Alex’s bravery. “The perception is if you’re gay in Kenya, it’s horrible. But I’ve tried to show that despite how horrible it is, they find this beautiful romance and have carved out a space and tried to make it work. Rather than feel bad for them, audiences should feel encouraged by the strength of Samuel and Alex,” says Murimi. “Yes, the law is against you, society is against you, but they find a way to be happy and enjoy life.”

‘I Am Samuel’ is released in the UK on June 3 via Bohemia Euphoria VOD platform

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