Not to be confused with Sean Penn’s attempt at Oscar bait, I Am Samuel is a documentary from Peter Murimi about the gay community in Kenya. Focused on Samuel, a rural Kenyan and his partner Alex, as they journey back and forth from their adopted home in Nairobi to the village where Samuel grew up. Following Samuel’s attempt to live peacefully with his conservative family, but also honestly about himself and his relationship.
There’s a breadth to I Am Samuel which highlights the benefits and pitfalls of documentary filmmaking. Absent of any real narrative direction Samuel’s situation, a gay man living in Kenya, where homosexuality is punishable by prison and gay men are routinely beaten on the street by cheering crowds, has enough drama in itself. The documentary is merely an attempt to capture Samuel’s life in all its tensions and mundanities. Work, play, family, Alex they all coalesce into a snapshot of one ordinary life made extraordinary by its ability to endure.
There is grimness to Samuel’s life, the main source of which is his relationship with his father, a preacher at their village church. The wider grimness however, the cruel treatment of Kenya’s LGBT community, serves as a backdrop. A reality that hovers over the film but never enters the foreground. Instead Murimi show’s Samuel’s life with exceptional tenderness, the ways in which gay men eek out moments of joy in a difficult situation.
Surprisingly, I Am Samuel is one of the more hopeful documentaries about this difficult subject matter. It jokes throughout about the mothers of gay men constantly asking when they will get married. As though their sexuality is merely a transient state. However, it ends on the prospect of Alex being accepted as a member of Samuel’s family. Perhaps the first tentative steps to the acknowledgement that this is who Samuel and Alex are and allowing them to live in peace.