Stories of Our Lives is a rare kind of film. Its subjects are not remnants from another era, its filmmakers are not guests in the region it was shot, and the social environment it depicts through fiction is merely a reflection of a stark reality – adorned with a couple of name changes and flourishes. At its core, Jim Chuchu and The Nest Collective’s film is brutal, affecting and, above all, dangerous. LGBTIQ life in Kenya isn’t a particularly comfortable topic within the country’s popular sphere – to this point, Stories of Our Lives premiered at Toronto without any names initially showing in the credits. From the title to the (now present) credits, the film is doused in this sense of collective anonymity and fear. Sure, the film isn’t presented as a non-fiction documentary, but besides the occasional narrativisation of the lives on display – it’s easy to forget. As the director and The Nest Collective make clear: these are true stories. The presence of Stories of Our Lives at Mardi Gras Film Festival is a necessary one, as a piece that moves away from the safer conception of queer cinema and into a more confronting, political and pertinent realm; one that audiences need to be engaging with on a far greater level than they already are.
The Nest Collective is a multidisciplinary group of ten Kenyans based in Nairobi, who operate around a desire to “dissect” the city and their own relationships with it: past, present and future. In this they also consider themselves to be “exploring, dissecting and subverting the layers of how Africans are Seen and Unseen, what Africans Can and Cannot Do, where Africans Can and Cannot Go, and What Africans Can and Cannot Say.” It’s important to view this film as part of the wider environment that frames the group that created it. That is, it’s a piece that both aims to represent and subvert a very particular context. The Nest Collective is concerned with Africa, and in Stories of Our Lives this focus is particularly directed at LGBTIQ lives within the country. In doing this, the collective have spearheaded one of the first films shot within Nairobi that examines a complex series of intersectional spheres of existence and oppression.
The film starts with subtle simplicity. Kate finds herself in love with Faith, a fellow student at a high school in Kenya. Together, they experience the institutionalised homophobia of the school system as they are considered for expulsion and punishment for simply being rumoured to be together. It’s in this pressure that Kate is pushed to “make sure” that she’s “completely gay” in a short vignette that paints a stark image of the inevitable intricacies required in simply existing as LGBTIQ in Kenya. Ask Me Nicely opens the film with an examination of the complex social pressures that inform how the characters interact and relate to their sexuality – beginning with a dialogue that permeates every piece that follows. Run, the following piece, introduces a more violent and immediate tension to the collection as a businessman finds out his partner is gay, with the former reacting to his lifestyle in such a vituperative manner that the latter is forced to escape in fear. These first two vignettes set the tone of the film as specific in focus, but detailed and diverse in the interpretations and experiences within it.
The vignette in the middle of the film is at its centre in both a temporal sense, as well as in terms of its impact. Ray, a farmworker faces a scenario where his longings towards his colleague – Athman – are amplified by the latter beginning a relationship with a woman named Fiona. The story isn’t complex on a broad scale, much like the vast majority of Stories of Our Lives. Again, however, it is in the intricacies it engages with that conjure the strongest commentary within the film. Athman is a tale of unrequited love that’s quickly established as the most memorable and affecting of the lot. This is developed through the proximity it has to this human being’s reality – and how the audience’s attention is drawn to this fact – alongside its pain-tinged narrative of interactions. The longing and unrequited desire expressed by Ray is felt by the viewer, and the misery that fills Athman at its conclusion flows out of the film and into the viewer, in a state-sanctioned sadness that finds itself both infectious and effective. Athman does start as a conventional tale of unrequited love, but it evolves into something far more affecting. It doesn’t try to be a universal fable of two amorous individuals, and it doesn’t try and fit into a teleology of stories of unrequited love. It’s specific and political, and more pertinently, the pain it portrays lasts hours longer than the piece itself.
In Duet a man, far away from Kenya, is soliciting sex from a white man, although finds it difficult to initiate. More subtle in its pain and division, there’s something irreconcilable in the scene and while the men do eventually become more intimate, the pain of the other stories bleeds through and fills the scene with a sense of impenetrable disconnection. Duet comes off as the most restrained and self-contained of the short stories, though its placement within the linearity of the others ties it to the other tales and gives it a carefully constructed, far broader context of self-hate, fear, and defeat. In the final story, Each Night I Dream, Chuchu and the Collective try to imbue the series of films with a slight sense of hope, although like every other expression of emotion, it is far more nuanced, and coupled with an irreparable sense of sadness. It is, however, trying to navigate this pain to find the brightest spots, not a Hollywood-hope, but something born in the intricately detailed contextual landscape developed throughout the film. The last piece is a tale of fantasy, escape – one inextricably linked to reality, and all of the elements established as part of this ‘reality’ throughout the course of the film.
Stories of Our Lives is an important film. It never constricts itself and never censors its views on the state of LGBTIQ lives in Africa, specifically in Nairobi. The proximity to truth – to reality – carries every one of the pieces to a place that holds a special pertinence. It’s dramatised, but it maintains the most confronting realness. Stores of Our Lives isn’t a documentary, it’s a fictional document of an ever-present reality. The stories are succinct, but they’re incredibly hard-hitting – and they should be. The emotions they provide, the pictures they paint and the impact they draw lingers on; overlapping with each evocation in a collage of pain, desire and silence.