Imagine someone monitoring your enjoyment at a rock concert. Actually, you don’t have to. Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto (Summer; in Russian), set in Leningrad in the early 1980s, opens with girls sneaking into an indoor concert at a state-permitted space. (The cinematography is marvellously agile, giving us the sense of being a curious, yet cautious, bystander.) But when the camera pans from the stage to the audience, we are treated to the strangest sight. Everyone’s seated in chairs arranged in neat rows — had we not seen the act on stage first, we could be fooled into thinking we are at the venue of an Economics lecture. There’s no screaming, no wild dancing — only a light drumming of fingers on thighs. A girl holds up a heart sign. A security officer runs over and says this is not allowed. Mother Russia has deemed it: They can’t get no satisfaction.
When the band is on a train, a man accuses them of singing songs of “our ideological enemy.” He says, “The state has given you an education. Start a family… plant a tree. Instead, you scream like a beast.” The lead singer is disturbed by this explosion, but not quite for the reason we expect. His problem is more pedantic. “The Sex Pistols scream,” he says. “I howl.” In the midst of Blondie LPs and sketches of David Bowie, the film explores this subversion. The underground rock scene provides the backdrop, and a kinda-sorta love triangle fuels the drama. The plot – filled with musical numbers — is based on the Soviet musician Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo), but it isn’t a biopic, nor is it a history of the period. It is philosophical about music, bohemian about relationships. It’s really about capturing a vibe. You feel like you were there. And then the moment is gone.
There’s an androgynous quality to Kena that doesn’t instantly let on that she’s a girl. She’s the way some gawky teenagers are — tall, skinny, drawn to jeans and tees. The boys treat her like one of the gang, including her in football games. But when Zika asks to join, they smile sheepishly and say she’d be a distraction. For Zika is a girl girl. She’s curvy. She wears lipstick. She has long braids. She wears dresses. Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki (Friend; in English and Swahili, and the first film from Kenya to be screened at Cannes) is about the relationship between Kena and Zika — and this is no spoiler. You know what’s coming right from the early scene where a gay man is mocked as a “faggot” by the guys Kena hangs out with, and she looks away, as though feeling guilty about not being able to defend and protect “one of her own.”
This delicately handled romance follows a familiar Juliet and Juliet template. The girls are achingly young. Their fathers are political rivals. They meet in secret and talk about leaving their lives behind and being “something real” — i.e., not following the programme like everyone else, doing the laundry and having babies. But can they really be true to themselves? To a liberal audience, this may not be much of a problem. But this is a small town where gossip is thick and the church holds a firm sway, with exorcism-like rituals to “cleanse” homosexuals. (The film has been banned in its home country.) When a lynch mob descends on Kena and Zika, I was reminded of India, where your business is everybody’s business. The scene is chilling, the ensuing heartbreak is devastating.
But for all its positives, I’d say Rafiki is well-made without being distinguished, nice without being necessary. I certainly liked the film. But the audience seemed to have loved it. As the end credits began to roll, they burst into applause. My response was similar to the one I had with Mani Ratnam’s O Kadhal Kanmani, where — as greeting-card cute as the young lovers were — it was the older couple I kept seeking out. I loved the scenes with Kena’s parents, who are separated. When Kena comes home after visiting her father, her mother asks, “Did your dad ask about me?” Kena says, “No.” She knows that her father’s new wife is expecting a child. She wonders if she should tell her mother. But she stays silent, as the mother replies, “He must be busy with his campaign then.” Sometimes, the love stories on the margins are more affecting than the one on the page.