“Stories of our Lives” or the Queer Kenyan Experience

In “Stories of our Lives,” the Nest Collective — an art collective based in Kenya — takes on an inspiring approach in narrating the experiences of the LGBTQ community in Kenya. What initially started as an oral project led to the production of a series of five short movies based on true stories, capturing the broad spectrum of the lives of those considered “marginal” in Kenyan society. The screening of the movie took place at the Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia on Feb. 13 in collaboration with the School of Arts and Sciences’ African Film and Media Pedagogy Seminar at Penn. The award-winning anthology challenged the status quo of a country in which homosexuality is considered a crime, punishable by law.

The project started on June 30, 2013, when members of the Nest Collective undertook to collect and archive stories of Kenyan individuals identifying as lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, and intersex. Originally, their stories were meant only to be presented orally, but the Nest Collective decided to move to movie production as they felt words alone wouldn’t be enough to share the struggles of these individuals. The movie has been entirely shot using a DSLR camera, and despite the precarious nature of the means available, the cineastes were still able to bring forth the shame, fear, hustle and hopes of this unorthodox community within the bigger Kenyan community in a heartening and impassioned way.

Five vignettes make up the movie: “Ask Me Nicely,” “Run,” “Athman,” “Duet,” and “Each Night I Dream.”

All of the movies shown are entirely in black and white — a choice potentially aimed at emphasizing the duality of the lives of the characters. Based on true stories, each movie documents what it is like to be queer in a typical African country, where you not only have to battle against society’s witch hunt, but also fight against unjust constitutional laws in a comprehensive way. As a queer Black African from Cameroon (Central Africa), I related to these stories, and I am certain that others in my position would as well. It honestly felt inspiring and enlivening to see such representation in the industry. 

For example, “Run” is about a man called Patrick, who faces a violent confrontation with his friend Kama after the latter sees him leaving a gay bar at night. Patrick is left with no choice but to run away to avoid the worst. The movie perfectly portrays the struggle of embracing “deviant” sexuality in a vastly homophobic society. At the same time, the film captures the thrill of discovering others who share the same “scandalous” secret as you in such proximity, and the desire to be with your newfound confidant. These feelings of excitement, however, exist against the constant fear of being unmasked. There is no choice but to embrace a false identity with those unlike you in order to maintain your coverage, because you know how violent the result will be if they ever found out, and the last resort will be to run.

In “Each Night I Dream,” following the threat of anti-gay laws enforcements, Liz visualizes dramatic escape plans for herself and her partner Achi. An escape from the nonsensical persecution the protagonists are victims of, to faraway places: wherever it might, no matter what it takes, as long as they are free to love.

“Stories of our Lives” is a beautiful compilation of stories that speak for not only the lived experiences of LGBTQ identifying individuals in Kenya, but also more broadly in the world. It is a smart production that is not afraid to state its goals in a conservative society to show the unjustly oppressed they are not alone and are visible. The medium shots bring us close to the characters’ intimacy, allowing us to better understand them and their feelings, leaving very little space for apathy. Despite the movie’s ban from Kenya, “Story of our Lives” remains a triumphant piece of art that proves how broad the concept of Africanness is.

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