Pumzi, which means “breath” in Swahili, is Kenya’s first sci-fi film. The short was first shown in the 2010 Sundance festival, as part of its New African Cinema program. Pumzi garnered much attention with its Afrofuturist design and narrative and unlike many other African sci-fi’s (looking at you District 9) the entire cast is made up of black Africans. The film is both written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu and is her second film.
Pumzi opens 35 years after World War 3 – the “Water War” – which is at some unspecified point in the future. The earth has been ravaged by what seems to be the nuclear element of this third world war. As the remains of the world dried up in its aftermath, humanity needed to take refuge in the new cradles of civilization to survive. We can only hope that Maitu isn’t the only one of these cradles. Without giving away any of the details, the story centres around the main character Asha’s need to escape this cradle and see if the world is as dead as she has been told.
Pumzi is a cautionary tale of hope that challenges eurocentric notions of what happens after climate change. Pumzi challenges the outcome of this catastrophic event by being set in Kenya and at the same time highlighting that as Europe and America debate the merits of a transition from fossils fuels; the rest of the world is being held to ransom.
Maitu uses totalitarian rule to ensure the colony’s survival. There is no spoken dialogue in the film either as communication is delivered emotionlessly through video messaging and typing. All is monitored and nothing is private. Is this for water conservation purposes alone, meaning even the condensation in breath is too valuable to lose? Or is conservation being used as a cover for maintaining control? The most basic of human actions, to speak, and converse, have been banned.
Pumzi is a unique and visually stunning film but it also has an important story to tell and with a voice that is not often heard.
“The film started as a joke. A friend and I pondered the possibility of living in a place where we paid for air. We invented the city, the virtual natural museums, the people.”
“… I am not here to tell people to conserve the environment alone, I am showing them what will happen if we don’t.”
Just to note that Kahiu supports the film being distributed online, in the hopes that it will draw attention to blossoming Kenyan film and African film in general. So feel free to watch the film below. At just over 20 minutes it’s well worth the time.