Wanuri Kahiu is a Kenyan film director, producer, author, speaker, and science fiction writer. She is famed for the movie, Rafiki which was banned in Kenya and Netflix’s Look Both Ways which featured American actress, Lili Reinhart.
Wanuri is considered one of the best African film directors and represents a new crop of filmmakers showcasing contemporary African culture. She boasts numerous awards and nominations for her work, both locally and internationally.
She is the co-founder of AFROBUBBLEGUM, a media collective dedicated to supporting African art. She is also a TED fellow and a World Economic Forum cultural leader.
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Background & Education
Wanuri was born on June 21, 1980, in Kenya. Her father was a businessman and her mother, a doctor. Despite her family’s professional background, Kahiu decided to pursue a career in the arts.
She developed an interest in filmmaking at the age of 16 which emerged from her passion for reading and storytelling.
Wanuri attended the University of Warwick in England and graduated in 2001 with a BSc degree in Management Science. She then decided to go back into the arts and obtained a Masters of Fine Arts degree in production/directing at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Theatre, Film and Television.
The celebrated filmmaker began her career interning for F. Gary Gray’s office, which allowed her to work on the production of his 2003 film The Italian Job (2003). From Gray, Wanuri notes that she learnt to, “keep an eye on the bigger picture but not to take the details for granted”.
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She made her professional debut in 2006 directing a behind-the-scenes documentary The Spark that Unites about a feature film Catch a Fire directed by Phillip Noyce. It is Noyce who encouraged her to return to Kenya and tell local stories. He reiterated the need to be a “local success first before becoming an international storyteller”.
Wanuri’s first feature film From a Whisper, based on the real events surrounding the 1998 twin bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania won Best Narrative Feature in 2010 at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, as well as five awards at the African Movie Academy Award, including Best Director and Best Screenplay.
In 2009 Wanuri produced a TV documentary For Our Land about Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai for MNET, a Pan African cable station.
In 2010, her short science fiction Pumzi premiered at the SUNDANCE film festival and went on to win best short film at Cannes Independent Film Festival and the silver at Carthage Film Festival (Tunisia). Pumzi also earned Wanuri the ‘Citta di Venezia 2010’ award in Venice, Italy.
She also wrote an Animation Film in conjunction with TriggerFish, South Africa. Wanuri is also in post-production on a feature-length documentary GER about UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Ger Duany, Who Am I, a short documentary about National Identity and a fractionally fictional documentary about a Nairobi-based indie-pop group Just a Band.
Wanuri’s 2018 film Rafiki, based on a lesbian love story was censored by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), due to the country’s laws on homosexuality. In order to qualify as the country’s entry under the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2019 Academy Awards, the had to be released in local theaters.
The ban received international coverage, and raised awareness of the film around the world. Eventually, the ban was lifted, although for just one week, local theatres sold out, airing the film.
“Nairobi is such an incredibly cosmopolitan city that of course includes members of the LGBTQ community, who are around us, and in our lives personally, whether we want to acknowledge them or not,” she said.
“So to pretend that stories like the one I tell aren’t an ongoing reality is just absurd. The fact that people came in droves to see the film speaks to this.”
Wanuri was so invested in screening the film for as many Kenyans as possible to see.
“There were people who turned up to see why this film was being banned, and who, I have to say, were quite disappointed that it was just an innocent, little film.
“Young people came to watch the film, some with mothers and fathers, then went home and came out to their parents,” she said.
“That was a big deal for me.”
In 2022, Wanuri broke into Netflix’s top 10 ranked movies with her film Look Both Ways. The film centers around a young woman, Natalie (Lili Reinhart), who takes a pregnancy test on the eve of her college graduation. Her life then diverges into two parallel worlds: one where she stays in Texas and becomes a young mother, and the other in which she isn’t pregnant and moves to L.A. to pursue a career in animation.
“I felt it was partially my life, in the sense that I remember the exact moment I realized I was pregnant and how I literally saw my life take a parallel route,” Kahiu, a mother of two, told Variety.
“I believe in parallel lives and multiple existences, and it really appealed to me.”
Ama’s Mama (2005)
The Spark that Unites (2006)
Ras Star (2007)
From a Whisper (2008)
Pumzi / Air (2009)
For Our Land (2009)
Africa First: Volume One (2011)
Who Am I? (2018)
State House (2014)
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