Content Warning: Descriptions of homophobic violence.
The new documentary feature I Am Samuel is the latest piece from director Peter Murimi, who wanted to create a film that examined life as a queer person in the deeply homophobic landscape of Kenya, where homosexuality is punishable by law with up to fourteen years in prison, and where extreme violence against queer people is commoplace.
The film follows Samuel Asilikwa, a young man who grew up in rural Kenya with his parents. Shot over five years, the documentary sees him being asked by his family why he hasn’t found himself a wife yet, before he moves to the busy city of Nairobi where he can find work. It’s here that he not only makes new friends, but finds the love of his life, a man named Alex. Over the course of the film we see the struggles that Samuel and Alex face, what happens when Samuel’s family learn the truth about him, and the acceptance they fight hard to gain by the end.
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I Am Samuel begins on a pretty strong note, making it clear that this isn’t going to be like a lot of other queer documentaries you’ll have seen. After being introduced to the two men the shot cuts to some blurry footage filmed on a phone of a gay man, stripped, laying on the ground, and being kicked and beaten by a crowd of people as they scream obscenities at him and threaten to kill him. Even though the footage is shaky, and much has been blurred out, it still hits incredibly hard, and shows the audience that this is a very different situation than some of us are used to. This isn’t just a story about people being their authentic selves, but doing so in a place where it can get you killed.
Over the course of the film we see how dangerous it is for Samuel and Alex to even let the documentary crew into their lives, and how something as simple as them flying a rainbow flag inside their home could get them seriously hurt. But, it’s not all awfulness for the two of them, as you can see how much they both care for each other, and how their small circle of friends not only accepts them, but cares deeply for them.
Samuel’s parents, Redon and Rebecca, are poor farmers living in the countryside, and despite obviously not being as comfortable with the documentary crew as Samuel is they still allow them into their home, they talk about their lives, and about how much they care for Samuel. It’s through his parents that we get a clearer understanding of some of the difficulties that Samuel and other queer people in Kenya face, how hatred of the LGBTQ+ community is so ingrained and normalised. They clearly love him dearly, but when Samuel does finally reveal that he and Alex are in a romantic relationship it’s one thing that they cannot handle.
During the several months that Samuel is told he’s unwelcome with his family we get a beautiful moment when the two of them gather their friends together in their small apartment and pledge their undying love to each other, where they talk about how they see the other as their soulmate, and how despite the hate they face their love means so much to them. They then exchange rings. This is the closest the two of them will get to being able to be married in their home country, but this simple, beautiful act of love and defiance in the face of oppression is so strong and so important.
Thankfully, this isn’t the only moment of love winning through, and after months of not speaking to Samuel his father calls him home, and tells him to bring Alex with him too. Not only does Samuel get to reforge his relationship with his parents, but they come to accept Alex into their home too. This is one of the best moments of the film for me, and one with such an important message. It shows the audience that even when people have deeply ingrained beliefs, when they’ve been taught for decades that something is evil and that it should be fought against, in the end love can still win through. Samuel’s family might not have known how to handle the news that their son was gay to begin with, but over time they came to realise that their love for him mattered more.
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It doesn’t mean things are perfect for Samuel and Alex though, as they’ve now moved to Europe in anticipation of a violent reaction to the film, even though it’s not being released in Kenya. This is something they’ve both had to live with, and at one point we see the wounds Samuel’s roommate receives from a gang because they thought he was Samuel. The world is still a frightening and dangerous place for a lot of queer people, but there’s still a lot of hope and love in the world too. I Am Samuel shows how in the end people can learn to be better, to do better, and accept that love is just love, and that queer people deserve to live in peace. Hopefully this is a message that will spread, and could one day make the world a better place.
I Am Samuel will be released on Bohemia Euphoria VOD Platform on 3rd June, and all digital platforms on 14th June.