Welcome back to the Netflix Hidden Gems series! Today we’re continuing our journey in African cinema with the Kenyan film Subira (2018). This coming-of-age drama won 5 Kalasha Awards in Kenya, and was Kenya’s submission for the 2020 Oscars, but did not secure a nomination. Unfortunately, it has not received much recognition outside Kenya. The movie is based on a 2007 short film of the same name, which was in turn based on true events experienced by its writer/director, Ravneet Sippy Chadha.
This powerful film has been praised for its strong feminist message as well as for its artistry. Let’s break it down;
The Story and Characters
The film tells the story of Subira, a young Muslim girl living on the small Kenyan island of Lamu. She spends her free time with her loving father, a fisherman, who promises to teach her how to swim. Her only dream is to dive in the ocean, even if the local customs see this as taboo. Over the years, she remains carefree until she is suddenly thrust into an arranged marriage with a stranger from the capital city, Nairobi.
Tradition and religion were strong themes which were portrayed with nuance. Subira felt trapped by marriage, yet her best friend had longed for it since she was a little girl. We were also shown that Kenyans are not a monolith; the characters had very different experiences of the same events depending on their gender, age and environment. Tradition can unite and divide at the same time. There were masterful portrayals of the different relationships in this film, especially between Subira and each of her parents.
The core message of women’s freedom is something many of us can relate to. In an interview with Ebru TV, the lead actress Brenda Wairimu said, “If you ask me, this story is based on a true story for everyone.” Even if you’ve never been to Kenya or even never seen the ocean, this story carries a truth that women everywhere have all lived through. Subira’s gentle stubbornness is something we could all learn from.
The Visuals and Sound
The sound design and music choice for this movie was simply stunning. Coastal music with Arabic influence is the very first thing that captures your attention when the movie begins. The music slowly shifts from more traditional Swahili sounds to urban music when the setting changes from Lamu to Nairobi. At the movie’s premiere, the poet and playwright Sitawa Namwalie commented on the creative use of silence in this film. There was little dialogue which left much of the story to be told with visuals, scenic sound and subtle expression.
The scenes of the crystal blue ocean at Lamu were gorgeous. Although the shots themselves were not technically complex, they had the intended effect. This movie was the definition of making a lot out of a little. I also noticed that special care was taken with wardrobing. In the first scene, Subira is a child dressed head to toe in bright green. She continues to wear green in the subsequent scenes but less and less as she ages, until the day of her wedding, when she is shrouded in pale green lace. The moment she leaves Lamu, she doesn’t wear the colour again. I interpret this as the loss of her youth.
In the End
Some may criticise this film by saying that it is simple. In my opinion, not everything needs to be complex. It is beautiful in the way swimming in the ocean in; vast yet uncomplicated. However, I will admit that other than Subira’s father, the portrayals of the male roles could have been more convincing and compelling. Overall, this was an artistic and refreshing watch that you should definitely check out.
Also Read: Netflix Hidden Gems: Love Today