The Woyingi Blog

About The Short Film Pumzi, an African Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic Morality Tale

I have recently stumbled upon the trailer for the short film Pumzi (Pumzi means ‘breath’ in Swahili). The film has been travelling around the US but I haven’t heard if it is coming to Canada. As a Sci-Fi fan, I would love to see more African Sci-Fi films. South Africa’s District 9 was visually stunning with a great plot but it had no Black African central characters. I want to see more Black African Sci-Fi heroes on film; they already are coming up in fiction, thanks to the work of writers like Nnedi Okorafor, a Nigerian American whose fantasy novel Zahrah the Windseeker I recently reviewed (See The Woyingi Blogger’s Review). 

From the short film Pumzi

The film is directed by young Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu who studied film at UCLA. Kahiu won Best Director at the Africa Movie Academy Awards for her film From a Whisper, about the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar el Salaam, Tanzania. I unknowingly had already seen her work as a director because she directed the behind the scenes documentary for Philip Noyce’s film Catch a Fire, which is based on a true story of a regular oil worker who becomes a freedom fighter in apartheid South Africa. She also directed a documentary about the Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai

Pumzi is a Kenyan/South African co-production. Its South African producers are Simon Hansen (who produced the short film Alive in Joburg which became the feature film District 9), Hannah Slezacek and Amira Quinlan of Inspired Minority Pictures. Kahiu was able to come up with the grant to finance the film from the Goethe Institut, Focus Features (which also produced District 9), and the Changamoto Fund. The film was shot over two weeks on location in South Africa. There were no Kenyan actors used. The film runs for about 21 minutes. It was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes, where it won Best Short Film. Kahiu is now working on trying to develop Pumzi into a feature-length film. 

South African Actress Kundzani Moswela with Kenyan Director Wanuri Kahiu

The film is set in East Africa 35 years after World War Three, the “Water War”. The war has caused large-scale ecological devastation. Put simply, “nature is extinct”. The land is uninhabitable so humans must leave inside specially sealed compounds. Humans only have recycled urine to drink. 

The central character of the film is Asha, played by Kudzani Moswela, a South African model and actress. Asha is a curator at a virtual natural history museum in the Maitu community, which is one of these compounds. One day she receives a sample of soil that is not toxic and she decides to use it to plant a seed she has in her possession. It starts to grow! Asha wishes to see if the soil sample is indicative that there is plant life on Earth again. In order to get permission to go outside she must apply for a visa from the authorities of the Maitu community. She is denied. Asha then decides to break out of the compound in order to see what is happening on the Earth’s surface for herself. 

Asha and the soil sample that might be a sign of hope for the future

Kahiu has written the following statement about writing and directing the film: 

DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT 

There is no part of myself that has not been involved in the making PUMZI. PUMZI has invaded my every thought, my dreams, my senses. PUMZI has been my heart and it’s rhythm. 

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. That was over 2 years, many tears, much frustration and several re-writes before the film was ready to go into production. At some point, the Universe (with help from Kisha Cameron) conspired and introduced me to the Producers of the film and it was a perfect fit. They were passionate about the project, profoundly knowledgeable about Sci-Fi and exceptionally generous with their expertise and resources. During pre-production one potential crewmember commented that making Pumzi (based on the budget and the ambition we had) was like pulling a rabbit out of a chicken’s ass’. Naturally he wasn’t hired, but the crew who were went above and beyond what was expected. 

A week before the shoot was scheduled to start we had not cast the lead character, Asha. And then Kudzani Moswela walked in. Her audition, her presence and her excitement for life dissipated any doubt. She was Asha. She breathed into the film unimaginable softness and courage. She became the heart of my heart. Her interpretation of Asha and the story was painfully tender and through it new, undiscovered layers of the film came alive. 

Now, years, months and many painful Visual Effects hours later, Pumzi is finished. More beautiful, more poignant, more charming than anyone expected. Pumzi is a visual ode to life. A life that (as described by Lorraine Hansberry)has within it that which is good, that which is beautiful and that which is love. Pumzi is the essence of all these. Pumzi is my breath. 

In an interview with Kenya’s Daily Nation, Kahiu states

Wangari Maathai has been talking about this issue for years and we never heed her advice so I am not here to tell people to conserve the environment alone, I am showing them what will happen if we don’t. 

According to Wired.com, Kahiu researched classic 1950s films to create Pumzi’s futuristic sets, comparing the processes of matte painting and rear-screen projection with indigenous African artwork. Kahiu states: 

We already have a tradition of tapestries and functional art and things like that, that loan a backdrop for films. 

Being a filmmaker in Africa is not easy. Not only is it hard to get financing for films, it is also not a respected profession. Kahiu, whose mother is a doctor and whose father is a businessman, still struggles for recognition even in her family. In an interview with CNN she said

I have aunts who come up and say ‘Oh, you’re still doing that thing?’ like I should move out of it, or it’s a phase I’m passing through. 

It is also particularly difficult to be a woman filmmaker. As Kahiu reflects

The success of Kathryn Bigelow shows how, even in 2010, it’s still like ‘Oh my gosh! A woman made a film that’s winning awards!’ It’s ridiculous. 

Kahiu is committed to building a profitable film industry in Kenya. She says

I would like to work and build an industry, so that everyone walks away well-paid, with great hours. 

Kahiu would advise young African filmmakers to do the following

To write their own stories. Their own experience as Africans. And to plant a tree. 

Further Reading: 

Website for the film Pumzi 

Trailer for the film Pumzi 

Interview (2009) of Wanuri Kahiu in the Kenya Daily Nation available online 

Interview (2009) of Wanuri Kahiu in Jamati.com available online 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu by CNN available online 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu in Wired.com 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu by Bird’s Eye View 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu in Vogue Black 

Website for Kahiu’s film From a Whisper 

Trailer for the film From a Whisper

Watch Kahiu’s short film Ras Star available online

Website of Awali Entertainment Ltd, co-founded by Kahiu 

Website of Focus Features’ Africa First Program

Website of the African Movie Academy Awards 

A particularly cool image from the short film Pumzi

One Response

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  1. eccentricyoruba said, on October 1, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Thanks for this! I read about Pumzi a while back and I enjoyed watching a preview online. I haven’t watched the entire short film but I have a soft spot for African speculative fiction.


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