Former CNN African journalist of the year, Peter Murimi, has dedicated his career to the social issues affecting African communities.
Over the past 15 years, his work has taken him to almost every country in Africa and has encompassed Female Genital Mutilation, poverty, HIV, human rights, climate change, water-borne diseases, urbanisation, and issues surrounding slum settlements.
Murimi’s latest documentary and feature debut, I am Samuel which recently screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and had its UK premiere at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, offers an intimate portrait of young gay couple Samuel and Alex as they navigate their way in a country where homosexuality is criminalised.
We spoke to Murimi to find out more about I am Samuel and what it’s been like releasing his debut feature film in the midst of a global pandemic...
Hi Peter, could you tell us a little more about who you are …
I am a filmmaker from Kenya. Basically, I am attracted to films about social issues, governance, and human rights.
Share a word or sentence that best describes you right now …
A passionate storyteller committed to putting the African narrative on the global stage.
What’s it been like releasing your latest documentary I am Samuel during the Coronavirus pandemic?
I have a friend who is in the same situation as me. We both released our first feature films and we’re calling ourselves the “Corona generation”. We were looking forward to getting feedback from audiences and showing the films to them, but it’s really strange. It’s the third festival that’s been virtual and it’s beautiful in a sense: it democratises the films. It makes them accessible to people who would not have the access to come to the theatre, so that’s a big bonus. But, a big minus is that immediate feedback when you’re sitting in the theatre. You can’t see when people laugh or cry or when they’re bored because everyone’s sitting in their living rooms. You have no idea if they love or hate it. Some people come to social media to engage with us, but in a sense, it’s like shooting blind and that is a bit frustrating.
You’ve made many documentaries before I am Samuel – in fact your first major win was back in 2004 when you were awarded CNN Africa Journalist of the Year for your documentary, Walk to Womanhood. How do you decide what issue you’re next going to explore in a documentary?
There’s this African saying – maybe also in English, “Sometimes the story picks you, you don’t always pick it”. I don’t constantly decide the next issue. For example, Walk to Womanhood was based in my village, it was things I could see happening and I just had to pick the camera up. I didn’t have to look for it; it was in front of me. It’s the same with the issues of LGBTQ+ identity I explore in I am Samuel. My very close friend was struggling with his family when he was coming out. It wasn’t planned, it just happened accidentally.
I am Samuel explores the love between two men – Samuel, who grew up on a farm in the Kenyan countryside where tradition is valued above all else, and Alex, who he meets in Nairobi. Why was it important for you to tell Samuel and Alex’s story?
I actually met Samuel early on in the process. I told him I really wanted to tell a story of a poor gay Kenyan man in a very authentic way. And he just said, “When I was young, I thought I was the only gay man because I didn’t know of any grown-up who was gay. I want to do this story for the next generation so that they can know that I was here and was fine.” We had the same ambition and goal, and so we went for it.
How did you build a relationship with Samuel and Alex so they trusted you to tell their stories?
My relationship with Samuel grew slowly. First, he introduced me to Alex, and, after a while, he introduced me to his parents and friends. With time and trust, he introduced me more and more to his world.
Filming for the documentary took place over 5 years. On a practical level, how did you negotiate filming – how big was your team?
During production, I was the only one shooting, so it was a one-man crew. That made it cheaper, but also a lot easier to blend in.
Having followed Samuel and Alex for such a prolonged period, what does it feel like to no longer be filming their lives?
It feels like a break-up. It’s really difficult because it’s five years of your life. We talk every day, but physically we used to be together a lot because you want to know everything that’s happening in their lives for the film – every drama, every twist, and turn. Now I don’t talk to them in that detail, and it’s a bit sad.
While people who identify as LGBTQ+ in Kenya still face many legal barriers to their sexuality, we’ve recently seen the release of drama films like Rafiki and, alongside ‘I am Samuel’, the documentary Kenyan Christian Queer. Do you perceive any changes in the visibility or attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community in Kenya?
I think the needle has been moving, but very, very slowly. The law is still the same, repressive. Society is still a hostile environment if you’re gay. But, the more we have these narratives in public, the more that members of the LGBTQ+ community can feel validated that they are not alone. Also, the more that people will start accepting LGBTQ+ identities if you don’t talk about these identities, it’s easy to deny that they exist, but if we start talking about them, things will change eventually. It’s a long-term game; we’re running a marathon. We will get to the finish line, slowly.
Do you think films and documentaries have a particular power in changing the status of marginalised groups?
Yes, they’re so important. For the general public, to be gay is something that you put in the closet and people don’t talk about. Films and books and magazines are some of the very few tools that people can interact with. With I am Samuel, they can get to know that Samuel exists and get to know who he is and what his life is like, and hopefully connect and have some empathy. Without that, they still think a gay man is this brainwashed guy who watched something on TV and decided he was gay. So, films bring these issues and people to life.
Will I am Samuel screen in Kenya?
Not yet. Hopefully it will go on soon, but at the moment no.
Do you have any plans to start work on another documentary?
I have something in development, but it’s still too early to know. I have some seeds I’ve planted, I just need to find out if they’ll grow into full trees.