Written and directed by Peter Murimi and co-written by Ricardo Acosta, following young gay couple Samuel and Alex as they navigate their way through life in Kenya where homosexuality is criminalised.
There’s a constant battle of being baffled that homosexuality is criminalised in any country in this day and age versus it being sadly not surprising given how close-minded the majority of some countries still are, and this documentary will make you feel both. The film opens on a brave and bold note by including graphic material of a gay friend of Samuel and Alex who has been stripped of all his clothes in the middle of the street and is being beaten, punched and kicked because of he’s an openly gay man. However, don’t be put off as this is a tone that they only use very sparingly, the majority of the film follows the themes you’d expect to find more in a drama.
Therein lies one of the documentary’s main weaknesses, it doesn’t quite delve deep enough or widely enough into the subject to give a bigger picture, it feels as though it’s only scratching the surface of a larger story, keeping to slightly safer territory. That said, it does well to capture the risk that is placed upon the LGBTQ+ community in Kenya who are open about who they are, their sincerely brave honesty puts them in danger of being harassed, assaulted and possibly even killed. Following Samuel’s coming out story with his family, his father being a very conservative preacher who’s forever willing him to settle down and get a wife, is touching and tense. The film keeps an extremely respectful distance while traversing through this part of the story which feels slightly disappointing, almost as if it’s glossed over and runs straight to the finish line. Building to certain moments to only include bits and pieces of the experience, feels slightly against the point and hinders it from becoming something more powerful.
It’s established very quickly that the director knows these men and put the idea to them of telling their story because it’s a topic that needs to be spoken about, it’s incredulous to have such widespread and governmentally approved discrimination in any country but that personal connection is very apparent in its stylings. The direction follows Samuel and Alex in a very classic fashion that feels right at home in any documentary but Murimi gets one step closer, especially in moments where he captures the couple with their friends, allowing the camera to really disappear into their circle. He clearly created such a comfortable environment for his subjects that they can speak to the camera like they’re talking to a friend, the way that they so easily share their intimate and vulnerable emotions is moving. Watching Samuel and Alex in their more tender moments is beautiful but it slowly starts to lead the documentary away from its dedication to telling a story about the discrimination that they face on a daily basis.
However, particularly with Samuel, Murimi captures many moments where you can palpably feel his discomfort, whether that be trying to encourage his parents to accept Alex as his partner or just feeling overwhelmed in social situations and needing a moment to himself. Inclusions such as those are where the documentary really shines and feels like it’s getting more to the heart of the subject but unfortunately it’s something that isn’t entirely consistent throughout.
I Am Samuel is an intimate, heart-breaking and touching documentary, while their plight may be a very specific experience, the emotions are much more universal, simply wanting to be accepted for who they are and to be with the person they love. It’s a shame that the film lets itself down by holding back, it feels as though there was much more unexplored territory and it doesn’t delve deep enough into some of the experiences playing out in the film. It’s a difficult thing to describe because while its intentions and the story its telling are worthy of the utmost admiration, you just can’t help feeling that there’s something missing.