INTERVIEW: Peter Murimi Talks Masculinity, Mental Health & ‘I Am Samuel’ (2020)

A seasoned documentarian whose work sheds lights on some of the most troubling social issues of our time, Peter Murimi’s latest I Am Samuel is an eye-opening, uplifting, intimate window into one gay man’s life in Kenya, and how he balances the expectations of his family with being his true self. Not shown in Kenya just yet, the film has been brought to UK audiences, screening at 2020’s London Film Festival and this year’s BFI Flare. Speaking to us at LFF last October, director Murimi talks about the years-long filmmaking process, what his hopes are for I Am Samuel, and what compels him to spotlight such challenging stories. 

You filmed I Am Samuel over a very long time, five-six years. Did your goal with the film change over that time, as you got to know Samuel and the family?

PM: When I began, I was just filming Samuel. Then it was Samuel and Alex, then after a while Samuel and his friends, and then Samuel, Alex, his friends, and his family. So as time progressed, I was getting a better sense of his network. I started understanding Samuel more towards the end, because sometimes, when you film with someone and their mother or father, you learn something more about them. So the longer it took, the more I learned about him, through the people that are close to him.

There’s a lot of drone work and overhead shots in the film – what was your process behind that?

PM: In this film, we had two worlds. There’s the city, where Samuel could be himself. And then at home, there was this conflict that was happening, in that they didn’t know who he really was. So we used the drone as a tool to move between the two worlds. It was a way for people to see the environment, how Kenya is, see the landscape of where Samuel is from.

Image is an aerial shot of the Kenyan countryside, which sees large gatherings of people surrounding a muddy river.
Image courtesy of BFI Flare

You’ve talked before about how it takes ‘time, experience and exposure’ to try and tackle homophobia. What are your hopes for what I Am Samuel could do in terms of influencing homophobic attitudes in Kenya?

PM: At the moment, I can see the debate about LGBT rights, and it’s not constructive. I’m hoping that when people watch films like this, they can engage with them in a constructive way. People tend to put other people in boxes, and I Am Samuel is a way of showing that you can be gay, you can be Christian, and you can be African. It shows how nuanced individuals are. I’m hoping it shows that who you are isn’t defined by your sexual orientation.

Your previous work also focuses on quite hard-hitting social issues, including male suicide and FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). What draws you to these topics?

PM: I do get drawn to them, but not by design. With the suicide one, at the time, I had a friend who was really struggling with his mental health, and that’s why I did it. For I Am Samuel, I had a really close friend who was coming out to their family, and that’s what attracted me to the issue. Some of them, it’s just an interesting thing. But the majority, especially the ones that are very important in my career, have been driven by me having a personal stake somehow in the story.

In the Suicide Stories film for BBC Africa, you were reporting specifically on the increase in male suicides. Do you see a link between those values of traditional masculinity that are still upheld in Kenya, the homophobia that is prevalent there, and that mental health crisis?

PM: I call it toxic masculinity, and it’s actually a source of so many problems. Growing up, you’re told that as a man, you should be the head of the family, the provider for the family. And if you don’t achieve any of these, you’ve failed as a man. And so, especially in an environment where unemployment levels are 40%, you’ve got men who can’t provide for their family. That leads to depression. Or, if you’re gay, and the whole community thinks that being gay is not part of being a man – and especially if you get that ingrained in your head and you can’t unshackle yourself from these societal expectations – it leads to depression and mental health problems. So it’s a big issue, a really really big issue.

Image is an aerial shot of a Kenyan city on a dark and cloudy day.
Image courtesy of BFI Flare

The Kenyan film Rafiki, which came out in 2018, was quite a breakout success, but it was banned in Kenya for showing a relationship between two women. Have you faced any kind of censorship or resistance during the filmmaking process?

PM: Because we’d factored all of this in, we were very low key, and very small scale whilst filming. It was only me out shooting almost all the time. When Rafiki got banned, we learned some lessons from that. Eventually, we’re hoping to take I Am Samuel home to Kenya, but we’re still formalising a plan. We’re hoping we don’t get banned, but let’s see. 

Do you feel like there’s a kind of movement happening to depict gay Kenyan and African experiences on screen? If so, what kind of positive change do you think that could have?

PM: It’s true that, before Rafiki, there was another film called Stories of our Lives, and that film was also banned. I hope there’s another film after this, because it’s empowering more and more people, and especially for gay men and women, it’s very important for them to see themselves and their stories on the screen. It validates that they’re there. It’s very important that we keep doing it, as a creative industry.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Header image courtesy of BFI Flare.