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Film review: I Am Samuel

23 July 2021

Stephen Brown reviews a film about faith and sexuality in Kenya

The family prays at the dinner table in I Am Samuel

The family prays at the dinner table in I Am Samuel

THE film I Am Samuel (Cert. 15) is a drama-documentary about difficulties encountered when the son of a local pastor doesn’t live up to his father’s expectations. Mainly set in rural Kenya, with its conservative moral attitudes, this is the love story of two men, Samuel and Alex, striving to be themselves. Penal Code 162 forbids any carnal knowledge “against the order of nature”. The felony carries a 14-year prison sentence.

Early on, we see mobile-phone video footage of a savage homophobic beating and murder. Samuel prays this may not be his fate, too. Pete Murimi is the director- cameraman drawn to shining a light on the unseen, marginalised, and vulnerable. He skillfully depicts the delicate balance between family duty and being true to one’s sexual orientation. By the time we are acquainted with Samuel, he has left home, searching for work in Nairobi. Urban life is arduous, but at least he finds friends (including Alex) and discovers the benefits of a loving community.

He continues to believe in God, but remains ill at ease with the beliefs of his church community back home. Murimi’s counter-intuitive cinematography astutely creates a sense of confinement in the wide-open countryside while endowing teeming city life with breathing space.

Redon, Samuel’s father, is a retired painter, now a smallholder. He wants what he sees best for his child — in other words, to be settled down with a wife. Redon’s Christianity reinforces these values, as he is unable to see in his faith any valuing of alternatives. Clearly, he and Samuel love each other. Even so, thanks to his mother Rebecca’s warnings, he is aware Redon has enlisted strongmen to knock Samuel into heterosexual shape. The result is to drive Samuel further away.

The film is sharp on denial. To an extent, Alex and Samuel play along with this on a surreptitious visit home. They pretend that their homosexuality was just a phase. “They might know the truth,” Samuel tells the camera, “but they’re willing to believe the lie.” In the blessing of a house that Redon is making for Samuel, the father prays vigorously that it might defeat the devil (code for homosexuality).

The film aptly, if unintentionally, may strike a chord within the Anglican community. Members universally accept the gospel (which theologians call kerygma), but how differently do various cultures interpret and implement it (didache). Hence the clashes that we have witnessed between some liberal Anglican leaders, particularly from the Western world, and more traditional African ones.

At an informal civil ceremony in Nairobi, Alex and Samuel pledge lifelong commitment. Although this includes a Trinitarian blessing on their engagement, it’s still unlikely to meet Redon’s absolute standards. The most that the couple can hope for is tacit acceptance of their relationship. There is a sign of graciousness when Redon adds for the first time Alex to the string of family members who are prayed for before eating together. Breaking bread has a sacramental feel to it, one in which people of opposing outlooks engage in the process of becoming true companions.

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