Nafsi is a slow but chilling drama about friendship, societal standards, power dynamics in romantic relationships and the selfishness and fickleness of people…
By Vivian Nneka Nwajiaku
In Nafsi, a 2021 feature that recently joined Netflix’s growing list of Kenyan content, a surrogacy gone wrong leads to multiple fallouts, and puts relationships in jeopardy. It sounds a little bit like Hollywood’s The Surrogate, especially with both movies sharing elements beyond just surrogacy. Like the American film, Nafsi touches on a range of complex topics from Down Syndrome to homosexuality, and also involves a woman carrying a child for her best friend. But these are just a few of its subjects. Written by Reuben Odanga as his directorial debut feature, Nafsi is a slow but chilling drama about friendship, societal standards, power dynamics in romantic relationships and the selfishness and fickleness of people.
Mumbi Maina plays Aisha, a middle-class woman with a traumatic childhood who wants nothing more than to be a mother. Her partner, Seba (Alfred Munyua), is just as desperate for a child as she is, although for a very different reason. After some failed attempts at child birth — one of which is an ectopic pregnancy — the cracks in their relationship start to show. On one such occasion, Aisha’s best friend, Shiko (Catherine Kamau), is around to witness it. Shiko, herself, is in a tough place in her relationship, having just found out that her boyfriend has a secret family back in his hometown. She’s taking a vacation to reset, and Aisha decides to go with her. No more “Sitting in the house feeling like I’m gonna kill myself over a man who doesn’t give a shit about us.”
But that doesn’t last. On their trip, a tearful message from Seba plunges Aisha back into her pain. Unable to bear seeing Aisha like that, and with a small part of her seeking revenge on her boyfriend, Shiko volunteers to be a surrogate for Aisha and Seba. Unfortunately, the arrangement leads to betrayal, loss and even greater pain, no thanks to the human obsession with self.
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There’s so much to unpack in Nafsi that it’s difficult to say what its most prominent theme is. Perhaps, its best to describe it as a film about the complexity of relationships. On one part, there’s Aisha’s relationship with her partner; on another, her relationship with her friends; and on yet another, her relationship with her family. At the same time, you can’t quite place any of the relationships over Aisha’s need to be a mother. This desire is at the core of practically all of these relationships, either informing them or being informed by them — whether it’s a friend who is a new mother, or a bad mother who traumatised her, or a disappointed partner who steadily uses emotional blackmail on her.
You’re never sure who really holds the power in Aisha and Seba’s relationship. One moment, Aisha wields her status as the higher earner as a tool to assert herself, using her money in power moves that give her the feeling of control. The next moment, Seba takes advantage of her love and lust for him, manipulating her into making unconscionable decisions that affect her other relationships. While Nafsi is generally good at depicting the bargaining power in relationships, for instance, between Aisha and Shiko, it is particularly great at portraying how money and sexual intimacy influence romantic relationships and how romantic relationships affect other relationships.
But what stands out the most for me is how it represents female friendship. The dynamic between Aisha and Shiko holds most of the spotlight in that regard. Between them, we see both the best and the worst in friendship, from true, unquestionable love in Shiko’s unconditional sacrifice, to unbridled cruelty in Aisha’s selfish betrayal. However, the real beauty is to be found in the film’s larger friend group. Aisha and Shiko are only one half of a sisterhood of four (the two other friends are played by Silayio Kirisuah and Monique Angelyn Bett). The four women have been friends since college, and their friendship is as imperfect as they come. Still, it’s interesting how they almost always show up for one another, both on group chats and in real life. There’s an applaudable deliberateness in its real and honest presentation of female friendship.
And yet, Nafsi, as a whole, does not feel deliberate enough. Let’s leave aside its mostly passable acting and its technical issues — the most nagging of which is its cinematography, from its choice of shots to how its frames seem to be cut off at the top. This film wants to be about everything, and whether that is deliberate in itself or not, it doesn’t quite work because the film ends up being unable to dig into most of its themes. It hints at the influence of societal pressures and standards but never really investigates it.
It provides a glimpse of Aisha’s traumatising childhood and her troubled relationship with her mother, but it leaves that relationship and trauma underexplored. Then, it tries to say something about the treatment of homosexuality in Kenya, a country where same-sex relationships are punished with imprisonment, but it sacrifices that conversation on the altar of unpredictability and relies too much on inferences that are very easily missed. And at the end of the day, it leaves several loose ends hanging, with more questions than answers.
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Clearly, Nafsi bites off more than it can chew. Yet, it’s very much a decent watch. With very little telling and plenty of showing, it’s held up by a lot of suspense and a constant sense of distrust and unease, aided by a score that spells impending doom from start to finish. It has a few dull moments, but its considerable unpredictability keeps it intriguing. Plus, because of how slowly the story unfolds (with a running time of two hours and an extra three minutes, no less), the film never really feels like too much is being thrown at the audience at once. And the mere fact that a lot of its topics are still heavily underexplored not only onscreen but in the real world of Kenyan society gives Nafsi some extra relevance as a pioneer. The bottom line is that Nafsi is an interesting, albeit inadequate, drama. It’s a worthy debut. But there’s plenty of room for improvement.
(Nafsi was released in theatres in November, 2021 and is now streaming on Netflix here.)
Vivian Nneka Nwajiaku, a film critic, writer and lawyer, writes from Lagos. Connect with her on Twitter @Nneka_Viv and Instagram @_vivian.nneka
I absolutely enjoyed reading this.