Hot Docs Review: ‘I Am Samuel’

Pete Murimi’s debut feature is courageous

4 mins read

I Am Samuel
(Kenya/USA/Canada, 70 min.)
Dir. Pete Murimi
Program: World Showcase (World Premiere)

I Am Samuel is a work of true bravery. This verité-style feature directorial debut from Pete Murimi offers an intimate portrait of Samuel, a young gay Kenyan man. Samuel shares with Murimi and the audience both the heartwarming joy he experiences with his first love, Alex, as well as the hardship he faces for putting their relationship into the open. Although it isn’t a crime to be gay in Kenya, intimate acts between members of the same sex are criminal offenses. The stigma for coming out is harsh and the consequences are even harsher, yet Samuel and Alex recognise their love as a risk worth taking. This open and honest film is a poignant snapshot of the individual acts that contribute to incremental change.

The film is a work five years in the making and such a longitudinal effort seems necessary with personal risks on the line. Samuel and Alex share how their friends become victims of violence simply by being gay. In one devastating sequence, Samuel’s roommate shows the camera the wounds he received when a group of homophobic ruffians “taught him a lesson,” thinking he was Samuel. Samuel’s comfort with Murimi is evident, as he speaks openly about his personal life while sharing the most intimate details about his family and lover, as well as his anxieties about the day when they’ll inevitably meet.

The bravery of I Am Samuel extends to Samuel’s parents, who let Murimi’s cameras into their lives and stick with the film when the young man gives them the news that devastates them. Samuel’s parents, Redon and Rebecca, are poor farmers in rural Kenya who nag their son to marry so that he and his wife can assist with the harvest and household chores. Redon, a pastor, espouses especially conservative views and eyes Alex suspiciously when Samuel’s “friend” comes to visit.

The film nevertheless finds its own catharsis with the act of love and acceptance that ends it. Such stories aren’t the norm, however, as Alex explains how his father disowned him when he came out. Similarly, the daughter Samuel introduces partway through the film reveals the double lives that many people lead for purposes of security or conformity. The film takes audiences through a surprising emotional rollercoaster in under 70 minutes as Samuel wrestles with the love he feels for both Alex and his parents, and his hopes to receive it equally in return.

Murimi’s unobtrusive style allows his characters and his remarkable access to their lives fuel the tale. The film is handsomely shot and lean in its storytelling, which delivers the human rights fable with accessibility and concision. Among the film’s many hands is camera operator and editor Sam Soko, who directed this year’s opening night selection for Hot Docs, SoftieI Am Samuel also boasts some familiar names with Cuban-Canadian doc talent Ricardo Acosta on writing and editing, as well as Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (The Innocence Files) serving among the film’s executive producers. One hopes the element of celebrity affords the film a wider reach while sharing Samuel and Alex’s courageous act.

I Am Samuel screens at Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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