Friday 11 June 2021

On demand: "I Am Samuel"

As we enter Pride month, another reminder that not everyone gets to celebrate so freely. With I Am Samuel, the Kenyan documentarist Peter Murimi offers an hour-long study of a sporty Nairobi resident, Samuel, as he approaches the first anniversary of his relationship with another man, Alex. Approaches with understandable caution, that is. After all, this is a country where homosexuality is still on the books as a crime that carries a 14-year jail sentence; the law of the street, more punitive yet, is represented by a chilling sliver of smartphone footage that shows a gay friend of Samuel's being stripped and brutally beaten by a baying mob. The tension only mounts as Samuel returns home to Western Kenya, to visit traditionalist parents who are still expecting their son to take a wife - and one suspects this is exactly the kind of patriarchal backwater where an archaic phrase like that might still be in regular usage. It's here that we learn the full extent of the convolutions Samuel has been forced into so as to conceal his true sexuality from onlookers, and of the complications that seem likely to keep him from coming out even to loved ones for the immediate future.

Much as Samuel seems to live life in two different places - the country, under the yoke of his parents' expectations; and the city, where he appears freer to be himself, albeit within the limits of his own or a friend's house - the film operates on two levels simultaneously. In part, I Am Samuel is a portrait of everyday Kenyan life: Murimi watches Samuel hanging out with pals, cooking, cleaning, working, doing the bare essentials. (The gentle suggestion is that Samuel's lifestyle isn't so far removed from that of any other Kenyan - though he may very well be the only person on the whole planet to combine the twin professions of labourer and netball trainer.) Yet this filmmaker isn't blind to the pressures his subject is living under; that viral video clip is inserted at an early juncture to serve as a threat, one that hangs heavy over everything that follows. Perhaps unexpectedly, those pressures are felt all the more during those sequences shot around Samuel's family home. Did Samuel's parents ever ask why Murimi had brought a camera crew to their house? Did Murimi stop to think whether he was pushing Samuel's terse father too hard on the question of his son's status? Alex, who comes to stay out this way as (per Samuel's mother) "a friend of Samuel's", is warned by his sister that his own father, appalled by news of his son's sexuality, may have hired goons "to teach him a lesson". Given the heightened tension in the air, you might want a more decisive third act - but then I'm sure Murimi would insist that, for Kenyans like Samuel and Alex, the future is yet to be decided. At any rate, he directs with insight and economy, and a gift for brisk portraiture, shooting just enough coverage to convey a sense of a place and the people living there. In the final moments, we follow Alex as he sets out through the streets of Samuel's birthplace in a game of hide-and-seek: a relaxation rather than a resolution, but also a shrewd reflection of what gay Kenyans have been having to do all these years.

I Am Samuel livestreams at 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow via Bohemia Euphoria; it will be available to rent from Monday via the BFI Player.

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