NAIROBI, Kenya — The first Kenyan entry ever nominated for an award at the Cannes Film Festival will debut in France in two weeks — but it is now illegal for Kenyans back home to watch it.
The Kenya Film Classification Board on Friday banned the film, “Rafiki,” a drama about two Kenyan girls who fall in love. Ezekiel Mutua, the board’s chief executive officer, said the film “legitimizes homosexuality against the dominant values, cultures and beliefs of the people of Kenya.”
Mr. Mutua said the film board’s ruling did not represent a ban on homosexual content.
“Homosexuality is a reality,” he said. “What we are against is the endeavor to show that as a way of life in Kenya.”
In the film, directed, written and co-produced by Wanuri Kahiu, the girls are separated by their communities, which oppose their relationship.
Ms. Kahiu said the film included several scenes of kissing and intimacy between the two girls. The board did not object to those, she said, but asked her to change the ending, which, she said, the board found “too hopeful.” She refused.
“My philosophy is to make hopeful, joyful films about Africa,” she said. “It goes against my ethos to create work that goes against that identity.”
The film ends by showing the two girls together, but it remains unclear whether they have maintained a relationship.
“It is actually quite an ambiguous ending,” Ms. Kahiu said.
Ms. Kahiu said she had wanted the film to receive the Kenyan equivalent of an R rating, limiting the audience to viewers over 18.
“We wanted adults to be able to have conversations, or have the right to decide whether or not they want to watch it,” she said. “We’re just saying give them the ability to choose. That’s been denied.”
The film ban comes as a Kenyan courts are reconsidering colonial-era laws discriminating against gays and lesbians. In March, an appeals court ruled that a law requiring the police to conduct anal exams on people accused of same-sex relationships was unconstitutional. A court in Nairobi is considering whether to overturn a British colonial-era law banning same-sex relationships.
Mr. Mutua and the board have previously targeted content they believe promotes homosexuality. The board banned the 2014 film “Stories of Our Lives,” which was a series of short dramatizations of the lives of gays and lesbians in Kenya. In 2016, a local network dropped a podcast called “Spread,” which discussed sex and sexuality, after Mr. Mutua accused its female co-hosts of promoting lesbianism.
The day before the ruling against “Rafiki,” William Ruto, Kenya’s deputy president, said in a nationally televised speech that privately watching films banned by the classification board is illegal, and he warned against discussing “illegal material.”
Ms. Kahiu said the ban amounted to creative censorship and violated her constitutional rights.
“Under the Constitution, we have the right to freedom of expression,” she said. “Nowhere does it say that the Kenya Film Classification Board has a right to deny that freedom.”