Peter Murimi’s documentary is a reminder of the uphill struggles facing the African LGBTQ community. Immediately, it grabs our attention in its introduction; a young, gay man, violently beaten in a senseless and brutal attack. While there have been notable shifts at acknowledgement and legal laws to protect their civil rights in the Western world, I Am Samuel shows us that as a global society, we still have a long way to go before equality is realised.
Disappointedly, that is as far Murimi’s documentary is willing to explore. Operating on restraint, it rarely critiques or digs beneath the surface to widely examine the myopic attitudes of the country, where Kenya’s draconian laws punish homosexuality as a crime (serving up to 14 years in prison). And It’s the type of missed opportunity that could have been an effective bridge in understanding the continued sense of injustice. Instead, it leaves its viewers underwhelmed with a sensory feeling of wanting more.
Instead, the gaze is focussed inward, opting for a personable and intimate approach. Filmed over five years (cinema verité style) Murimi presents his documentary as a familial microcosm, tackling gender politics, economic wealth, African traditions, modernity, religion, and family succession. Through Samuel’s eyes (our guide), it’s the continued trials and tribulations, wrestling with the social pressures of being Black, African and gay.
Murimi does well to capture that intersectionality, a feeling that will undoubtedly resonate with so many Africans across the diaspora. The duel battle between heritage and crafting your identity is a negotiated war on expectations and responsibilities. Here, the director displays that in a frank conversation between Samuel and his friends, exchanging stories at how their parents react towards homosexuality. Some would choose denial, claiming it is a phase. Others playfully suggest that the women are always the ‘first to know’. In extreme cases, the damage is severe, where disapproving fathers are quick to disown their sons or hire people ‘teach their sons a lesson’. It’s one of the few stories that the documentary has in its arsenal where that powerful slice of reality that underpins I Am Samuel’s journey is acknowledged, even if it’s very light on the touch in that exploration. And perhaps that limitation comes down to its verité style; keen to be a voyeur but rarely wants to push beyond its scope to ask those brave questions.
But at its heart, Murimi’s strength is found in its emotive contextualisation, finding warmth where it’s seemingly absent. It juxtaposes between Samuel’s family life versus his ‘adopted’ one. The fragmented relationships and social barriers serve only as empowerment and belief for his love of self, his partner Alex and the community he belongs to. It’s not without its struggles; Samuel works two jobs, and his parents’ hardships in the village have taken a toll on their health. But Murimi reminds its audience that there is always joy and celebration with life. And in Samuel and his partner, it’s finding love through adversity in defiance of the law. It’s more hopeful than anticipated.
It poetically dedicates the film to queer Africans where the search for a dignified life without fear of repercussions and backlash is still an ongoing battle. It’s a story that needed to be told. At times, it is soulful and simplistic. But in its attempts to build an encapsulating picture of its subject matter, I Am Samuel sadly doesn’t go far enough.
I AM SAMUEL screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. UK Cinema release date – TBC.