I Am Samuel

***

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

I Am Samuel
"Although the film has a heartfelt sweep, it is so tightly focused that questions go unanswered." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

It is still illegal to be gay in 70 countries, including Kenya, where though being gay in itself is not a crime, engaging in gay sex can lead to a 14-year jail term - described in a piece of law enacted by British colonials as "carnal knowledge against the laws of nature".

A stark fact that makes the bravery of Pete Murimi's documentary all the more apparent as it follows young gay Kenyan Samuel over a number of years as he talks about the "love of his life" Alex. The pair of them live in Nairobi and in early, brutal footage of one of their friends being beaten in the street, Murimi makes it clear that it isn't just the legal system that is homophobic.

While never understating the joy that the pair have found as a couple, Murimi goes on to paint a picture of not only the difficult societal backdrop that they are up against but also of fractured family life. Alex relates how his father went so far as to try to get him beaten up when he came out, and Samuel also faces problems at his family's home in Western Kenya. Murimi's camera follows him - and later Alex - on visits there during chunks of the film. Samuel's dad, a preacher, is taciturn in front of the camera, saying little beyond outlining the importance of the patriarchy, that men are expected to be the head of a family and have children above all else.

The women - including his mum - are more empathetic to the situation, with a group of Sam and Alex's friends discussing a sort of 'don't ask, don't tell' policy that seems to be in operation in many families. As one puts it, they are "willing to believe the lie". As the months go by, we see how Samuel and Alex begin to be gradually 'accommodated' by Samuel's family, and this cautious optimism is bolstered by Eric Wainaina's upbeat score.

Although the film has a heartfelt sweep, it is so tightly focused that questions go unanswered. Chief among them concerns Samuel's previous relationship. He has a daughter with an ex-girlfriend, whom he dated in a bid to conform to expectations. While we see his little girl on camera, there's no discussion of what happened to his ex and where she has been left by Samuel's decision, but the suspicion has to be that she has inherited lingering societal problems that go untouched on here. There's also little sense of the wider community surrounding Samuel's family and whether they are enduring any kickback about their son. While the courage of Samuel, Alex and Murimi is not in doubt, it's a shame the director didn't feel brave enough to share the full impact of these choices on others, even if they might have shown the less optimistic consequences stemming from a society which is struggling to shake off it's deeply ingrained inequalities.

Reviewed on: 07 Oct 2020
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I Am Samuel packshot
An intimate portrait of a gay Kenyan man balancing pressures of family loyalty, love, and safety and questioning the concept of conflicting identities.

Director: Peter Murimi

Writer: Ricardo Acosta, Peter Murimi

Year: 2020

Runtime: 69 minutes

Country: Kenya, Canada, UK, US


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