BFI LFF 2020

I Am Samuel review – courageous but simple exploration of Kenyan gay love

Peter Murimi's documentary serves as an important statement on sexual freedom but fails to dig deeper into its most interesting ideas

In the opening minutes of I Am Samuel, we're shown mobile phone footage of a gay man being throttled in the street by other civilians. This, alongside details of Kenya’s homophobic Penal Code, immediately presents the socio-political context of the story we're about to witness, as Kenyan documentary filmmaker Peter Murimi follows the love story of Sam and his boyfriend Alex over five years as they navigate life as a closeted couple.

The discrimination faced by gay men is presented within two spheres: violence – akin to the attack presented at the top of the film – and parental pressure. Sam’s father is a staunchly religious pastor, who still believes in traditional gender roles and hopes his son will marry a woman soon. These hard and soft forms of prejudice are not averse to overlapping. Though Sam’s own coming out journey is presented as a more hopeful story, this is also a world where parents will pay for their son to be attacked if he comes out as gay.

Sam’s move to Nairobi, away from his parents in rural Kenya, was a way to escape the emotional pressures at home. In the capital, he has found love with Alex and a supportive group of gay friends. The camaraderie and comfort that emerges between these oppressed individuals provides respite from the inhospitable outside world. It’s heartening that in such a world, Sam still dreams. He dreams of a better education, a flourishing relationship and even for his netball team to win big.

Yet at times it's hard not to critique who this documentary is actually for. Showing the love between two men, as well as the horrific danger they face, fulfils a mandate of humanising gay men. But is this enough to carry an entire film? It’s difficult not to believe that a more inspiring doc would have focused more on the morsels of gay life closeted men have carved out between themselves in Nairobi. Moreover, providing more of Sam’s parents’ perspective on their son’s coming out would have made for insightful viewing.

Still, I Am Samuel is another vital reminder that the freedoms of sexuality so many of us enjoy can only be dreamt of in such hostile nations like Kenya. And Murimi’s desire to tell this story is no less courageous than the utterly adorable love story it presents. But the unimposing directorial style backfires as it fails to leave a lasting impression, and the film cannot escape the feelings of missed opportunities to widen its outlook and tell a more thorough, nuanced tale.

I Am Samuel was screened as part of the BFI Film Festival 2020. Find out more and get showtimes here.

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