A man arranges a sexual liaison with another man and sits in a hotel room, waiting for a knock on the door. Teenage girlfriends face an awkward reunion after being pulled apart by school officials. A woman and her female partner dream up an escape plan as angry mobs threaten to evict gays from their homes.
These and other real-life stories, drawn from a collaborative project to document the lives of members of Kenya’s LGBT community, were the inspiration for “Stories Of Our Lives,” a collection of five fictional vignettes that will have its world premiere tonight at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The film, directed by Kenyan artist and filmmaker Jim Chuchu, explores the issue of sexual identity at a time when the LGBT community in Kenya and across Africa has been increasingly under siege. It is an effort, said Chuchu, to focus on the human stories behind the headlines, and to shine light on lives that have been persecuted, marginalized or ignored in Kenyan society.
“We’re really interested in telling stories that are different from the mainstream Kenyan culture, which denies a lot of things,” he said.
Chuchu is a co-founder of the NEST, a multi-disciplinary art space in Nairobi, whose members decided last year to travel across Kenya, documenting the lives of the country’s LGBT community. Working with activist groups, they conducted hundreds of anonymous interviews with gay men and women. Only afterward, said Chuchu, did the group recognize the project’s potential to bring some of those stories to the screen.
Much of the cast and crew were learning on the fly. While the NEST collaborative has worked on music videos and a range of multi-media projects, this is the first time they’ve come together on a feature-length project. None of the roughly dozen members have formal training in film; some, said Chuchu, have backgrounds in medicine and social work. The movie was shot over the course of eight months on a $15,000 budget. Having the film premiere at one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals was hardly on anyone’s mind.
"It was a big, big surprise to all of us,” said the film’s screenwriter, Njoki Ngumi. “But with the excitement about the selection also came a sense of a greater responsibility, now that this film would reach a much broader audience."
There are still concerns, though, about how the movie will be received in Kenya, where homosexuality is punishable by law — though rarely prosecuted — and a lingering social stigma remains. “We’re not entirely sure what will happen to us as individuals, and us as an institution,” said Chuchu. “We’re still kind of in uncharted territory.”
The fear of a potential backlash, though, hasn’t discouraged the movie’s creators. During filming, the cast and crew chose to remain anonymous, out of concerns that the project runs askew of Kenya’s anti-gay laws. But in Toronto, the film will screen with a full list of credits.
Traveling to the festival along with Chuchu and Ngumi is executive producer George Gachara. The risk of revealing their identities, said the director, was offset by the overwhelming reception the movie received at a private screening in Kenya, attended by members of the LGBT community.
“It’s been very emotional,” Chuchu said. “It’s made us see that it was important to do this film.”