Filmed over five years, I Am Samuel is a vérité-style documentary that follows the life of titular Samuel as he moves to Nairobi in search of a new life, finding a place of belonging in a community of fellow gay men and falling in love with his soulmate Alex. Facing the pressure of being truthful to himself but dutiful to his family in a country that criminalises anyone identifying as LGBTQ+, Samuel’s story is a raw and honest narrative of optimism and hope.
In Peter Murimi’s directorial debut, the film gets straight to the subject matter of the documentary from the very first second, wasting no time in depicting the realities of Kenyan life for many. Grabbing your attention straight away with a graphic video of a man being beaten on the street for being gay, I Am Samuel is an eye-opening and thought-provoking film that makes audience members address and acknowledge their own privileges compared to the lives of Alex and Samuel.
Amongst the hard-hitting narrative of pain, though, is a message of optimism. The film expertly uses the heart-warming relationship between Samuel and Alex as a beacon of hope. Audiences watch the very intimate, personal lives of these two men unfold as they fall in love, against all odds and pressure from the Kenyan law and their families. With a length of just under 70 minutes, the film uses storytelling and a gradual pace to allow us to understand these men from an emotional perspective. While it is clear there is a real danger for Samuel and Alex, these two men bring an uplifting message to those in similar situations, that you don’t have to be condemned to a life of relentless pain.
This message of hope is further reflected in a moment when we see Samuel’s father coming to accept his gay son at the end of the documentary. Despite living in such a conservative reality where tradition is valued above all else, the scene shows that if given the right determination and hope, change can happen. This film isn’t just about making people aware of the realities of LGBTQ+ Kenyan men, but about providing a message of hope for those similar to Alex and Samuel: there is a way out. The act of courage alone for those in the documentary to let the cameras into their homes and show them who they truly are, despite tradition, is what echoes throughout the documentary.
Score wise, I Am Samuel is a very quiet film with many shots just focusing on the beautiful landscape and cinematography, working to further add to the intimacy and realistic tone of the documentary. I particularly sobbed at the end when we are told that Alex’s name has now been added to the prayer circle while Eric Wainaina’s “When Darkness Comes” plays over the credits. I Am Samuel confirms the great potential of director Murimi who has produced a film that makes anyone watching become attached to these characters and their story of love and survival.
Overall, I Am Samuel is a film that depicts the individual acts of bravery that can result in incredibly important change. Exploring the dilemma of being truthful to yourself versus family acceptance, it is a film of conflicting identities, hope, determination and first and foremost: love. I would thoroughly recommend to anyone who is looking for a thought-provoking, eye-opening documentary about the lives of LGBTQ+ men in Nairobi.
Words by Lucy Lillystone
Other reviews from the London Film Festival can be found here.