Pete Murimi’s brave debut feature documentary I Am Samuel provides an intimate look at sacrifice in the name of love.
Samuel was born and raised on a farm in rural Kenya. Moving to its capital, Nairobi, he meets and falls in love with Alex. Samuel’s father, a preacher at his local village church a few miles from the capital, expects his son to marry and looks forward to the day when he brings home a daughter-in-law. While Alex and Samuel’s love for each other thrives, they remain constantly aware of the shadows of violence creeping around them. After all, under the Kenyan constitution’s penal code, introduced by the British some 100 years ago, homosexual acts carry a 14-year prison sentence.
We open with Samuel detailing how he met his partner Alex and how in his homeland of Kenya, this relationship, his love, is deemed illegal. It is not just the courts and lawmakers that frown upon LGBT relationships. It is also the normal citizens, neighbours friends and family. To make his point clear Peter Murimi shows a video of a man being severely assaulted by a large group of people. Stripped and threatened with circumcision, the man is a bloody mess. Samuel tells us that this man is his friend.
This short example is enough to put those who know little of Kenyan politics regarding the matter into a state of shock. The videos that circulate of such attacks are usually for thief’s. Here however, a man who in the majority of countries around the world has the right to marry his partner cannot even say he is gay. It is soul destroying to know this is still happening in the world right now.
Murimi perfectly showcases the dangers currently associated with being LGBTQ+ in some countries, the stark realities really shakes your understanding of world politics. When Samuel and his housemate chat later on in the film we see grotesque scars that will likely never heal on his friends body and face. Another shock to the audiences system.
Yet, despite the threat of 14 years jail time, the public and secret attacks and the shunning of families, Sam and Alex and many others like them stand for what they believe in. They remain positive, they still love. They want to live their lives how they see fit, even if they have to hide it from others at times. Their relationship, love for one another and their cause can only warm your heart.
The prospect of this changing anytime soon seems unlikely. Yet even within Samuel’s own circle changes are occurring. Some family members pretend he and Alex are not gay and are just friends, some shun him. But others begin to learn to adapt and learn to understand and it is here that we should focus. Kenya is obviously behind the West socioeconomically and politically, but it won’t always be. Showing family members begin to come around to this alternative (to them) way of life reaffirms what we want to believe in everyone. That there is good there.
A word needs to be shared on the cinematography as well the story of the 5 year journey of this film. The choice in shots we are constantly presented with beautiful visions of Kenya. Perhaps seeing the Kenya that Samuel hopes to be free in, in the future.
These under told stories need to be shared. Awareness needs to grow about the sacrifice these men and women put on the line every day. They only want to be themselves, with those that they love and be respected. I Am Samuel tells us that no matter where we are. We need to be more compassionate to our fellow man. We may not be in Kenya. But, we still see micro (and to be fair non-micro) attacks on others every day. Hate and fear is constant in humans and brave people like Samuel can only help make us better.
With all of that said the discovery of Samuel’s former life and the fact that he does have a family of his own is surprising. It is a small mystery that Samuel’s wife is largely forgotten about in this narrative. As it would have been interesting to find her viewpoint in all of these events. She is far likely not a lone figure in Kenya. Forced to marry and give birth to a child that is not wanted other than to assist with farm work. All the while her husband leaves to live the life that was meant for him.
It is a real missed opportunity to not venture a little into this specific subject from Murimi. Though, he clearly sees 5 year journey as Samuel’s story. One that we need to see the positives from all sides of and this slightly skews the film. Luckily it does not wholly detract from it and it’s important message.
Not only is this an emotionally compelling film. I Am Samuel is a visually compelling one also. A wonderful documentary that truly and importantly needs to be seen.
To view more of our reviews as we cover the London Film Festival 2020, please have a gander below!
The Painter and the Thief ★★★★ – LFF 2020