An intimate and inspirational documentary, I Am Samuel tells the brave story of Samuel and Alex who fall in love and handle the pressures surrounding Kenya’s law and loyalty towards his family’s needs. As it’s playing at the London Film Festival, I spoke with the film’s director Peter Murimi where we discuss about the film itself, the challenges that he faced when filming it, and what it means for it to be playing at the festival.
What is the film about, and how did you come with the idea of it?
It’s a film about love and resilience, and hopefully when you watch it, you know what it’s really like for a gay man in Kenya. The idea came from a very personal place: there’s someone really close to me who’s gay and they were really struggling with their family at the time. So, I remember we were brainstorming, and I was like ‘If only there’s a documentary that when the parents watch it, they’ll really understand what’s going on’. At the time, we couldn’t come up with a clever documentary, so I said that we’ll make one as a story. That’s when through a mutual friend, during my research, I got introduced to Samuel. I told him about the idea, and he said he always wanted to do this because when he was younger, he didn’t know any grown-up who was gay, and always thought something was wrong like, ‘I’m the only gay man in the world’. He said, ‘I wanted to do it for the generation behind me, and that they can see a gay man who’s from a village in Kenya’.
Leading on from that, what drew you towards Samuel’s story?
What I also found very interesting about Samuel, especially back home in Kenya, is that society tends to put people in boxes – if you’re gay, then they think you’re automatically not Christian, or your African roots are not as strong. But for Samuel, you can say he’s traditional, he’s conservative in his political leaning, he’s very religious, and he’s gay. So, in a sense, he was going against this rule that society has of boxing people, and I found that very fascinating.
At the start of the film, it says that homosexual activity is illegal in Kenya. As well as Samuel’s story, was that something you also wanted to address?
Not really and in a sense, that’s why we chose to show that right at the start. We felt it was important to give the context of the world setting. Part of that is the law, which is repressing, and the next thing is the society, that’s where we see the clip of Samuel’s friend being beaten. But after that, what’s really important was his relationship with his father and Alex, but also his life – where does he work and how does he live? To me, those were the things that I really wanted to focus on because, especially in Kenya where there’s almost nothing about the narrative of a gay man onscreen, I just wanted to have as many connection points to show there’s a lot of similarities with any other Kenyan. He has a job, he goes to Church, he has a lover, who’s a man, but still has a relationship that’s really strong and sweet. That, for me, was the focus of the film.
You shot this over five years, how did you edit it to make it feel like a cohesive narrative?
Basically, the father’s story is the spine of the film. When you look at every other thing happening, Samuel’s relationship with Alex is constant: they love each other at the beginning, and they love each other at the end. The only thing that advances their relationship is when they get engaged. However, the father begins the film by saying ‘I want my son to have a wife’. But at the end, he has to manage and deal with the fact that his son is gay. So, the father’s narrative arc is what guided us in and somewhat shaped the final outcome.
You filmed it in a verité-style, and there are moments where you know more behind the camera than Samuel’s family does. How were you able to stay unobtrusive?
During the filming, it was really important for it to be really intimate. In that sense, at the beginning it’s like, ‘I’m going on this journey with Samuel’, and Samuel is the first person who was on board with the film. But the next hurdle was bringing the rest of Samuel’s world into this narrative that we’re making, and essentially, we built it brick by brick. I started with Samuel, then Alex, and then the next level was to bring the family on board. But, how do you achieve that without bringing a catalyst for conflict? So, I had to form my own relationship with the parents and document what was happening. But when the father fell out with Samuel and Alex when he discovered their relationship, he also fell out with me.
Yeah! And when the reconciliation happened, there was also a reconciliation that I had behind the scenes. He said, ‘okay, I see what you’re trying to do, now I understand’, so he was on board with the project and wanted to finish it. I became part of that family, I’m still part of that family in a sense, they call me every day and they’re very enthusiastic to share this story with the world.
What challenging aspects were there when making this film?
The challenge was that when I decided to make this story intimate and verité, everyone had to trust me, get used to me, and then forget about me. Especially with Samuel’s friends understandably, they had to be apparent, so it took a lot of time for them to understand and get onboard. Once they did it was absolutely fine, but getting that trust and intimacy was the challenge.
Can you explain more about that trust and intimacy?
I’ll give an example. In the first scene, we see Samuel’s friends talking about the challenges they have with the families. To get to that scene, it took me three years for everyone in that circle to say, ‘you’re a cool guy, we like what you’re doing, we accept you in this circle’, and then I shot that scene during the fourth year.
As the film jumps between the Kenyan countryside and Nairobi, was there a contrast behind the camera?
Like Samuel, I also grew up in the countryside, so it felt very refreshing when we went there. When we were filming in Nairobi, Samuel lives in an informal settlement: it’s very crowded, it’s very noisy, it’s very hectic, and also that’s where the most danger would come from. However, once we left the city, and I tried to portray this in the story through the sweeping drone shots, it’s like everything is peace, it becomes more calmer. There’s another drama with the family but the physical peace is there. That was refreshing for me, and really refreshing for Samuel because it meant he was less alert to the physical risk.
Your film is playing here at the London Film Festival, one of the biggest of the year. How does it feel for it to be picked, as well as playing to a massive audience online?
It means the world to me, especially in two ways. One is that I’m Kenyan, and it’s very nice to see a Kenyan story, made fully by a Kenyan crew, being on this world stage. So, the validation that that gives means that our stories can be on the world platform and be appreciated, which is really good. The second thing is this film has to be taken home at some point, which is going to be difficult. Just getting the support here, showing it at the London Film Festival, getting more allies, getting more followers and supporters will help us so much down the road when you’re back home and the road is potentially bumpier.
As this is a Kenyan film, would you like to see more films from countries like Kenya being shown to wider audiences on a world platform like LFF?
Absolutely, and it will be really refreshing. As I said, for me, I want to give big accolades to LFF for being brilliant enough to show it. When making a first film, we wanted to be really authentic because you’re normally told, ‘try to conform to how other people do international documentaries’, but we encouraged to be treated with our own voice, and how we tell it. We left all of our African nuances in the film, like there’s no big conflict with the father and son so we’ve shown how Africans would handle it. So it being here, it’s very important to have that diverse narrative and voice, and I hope more African films can come to the London Film Festival and many others from around the world.
As The Edge is a student entertainment magazine, what would you like university students and young people to take away from your film?
There are two things I want them to take away. One is to celebrate ‘love’ because my film, ultimately, is about love – the love between Samuel and Alex, which is beautiful, and also the love between father and son, despite all the disagreements and difficulty. But to me, and this is what I think is the core of the film – it’s about breaking boundaries that people have been forced into and allowing them to be who they are. That’s the biggest message in the film: we should all just be who we are, and let’s knock the walls and barriers that restrict and conform us!
Do you have any plans for what you would like do next?
Yes, I have a few ideas I’m involved with, but I’m just planting the seeds. I’m just waiting to see if they would actually germinate and shoot, so I’m a bit scared to let them get out of my lips.
Lastly, would you like to return to Samuel’s story in the future?
I think, for the film, it’s finished. But as I said, for what we’ve been through together, that is my second family, so we’ll always be in touch with them. There have been developments after, and we all follow each of them. However professionally, that camera has been put down for that project.
Thank you ever so much for speaking to us, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Best of luck for the film, for the festival, and I look forward to seeing what you do next.
Thank you so much.
I Am Samuel, directed by Peter Murimi, is distributed in the UK via We Are Not the Machine, certificate TBA.