In a recent interview with Samantha Burton for Bitch, Kenyan writer-director Wanuri Kahiu recalled a lovely endorsement she received from a film festival attendant in Zanzibar. Speaking of her 2009 short Pumzi, he said:
"If you ask everybody here, 'What exactly happened in that film?' they wouldn't be able to tell you. But if you ask everybody here, 'What was that film about?' they would be able to tell you."
I'd like to talk to the man quoted above—as well as Kahiu—because I'm not sure if I know what this film is about. It's easy to summarize. Pumzi, which is the Kiswahili term for "air", takes place in a subterranean East African territory called the Maitu Community 35 years after World War III, which was an apocalyptic global fight for water that resulted in Earth's inhabitants retreating below ground.
The film begins with a dream, which may be a nostalgic yearning for a time of greater ecological sustainability. A young woman reaches out to a tree backlit with the sun's warm glow. Just as it seems within her grasp, a monitor calmly warns the dreamer, scientist Asha (Kudzani Moswela), "Dream Detected: Take Your Dream Suppressants." The changing color palette represents Asha's transition from waking life to reality, as the vivid blues and yellows of Asha's dreamscape are replaced by a monochromatic color palette of browns and grays. She wakes up and relieves herself in a communal bathroom. Her urine is filtered, collected, and recycled so that it can immediately be reused as suitable drinking water. This sequence wordlessly illustrates that water has become a precious resource in this world.
Later, Asha discovers a sprouting seed. She brings the development to her superiors' attention. They demand that she abandon the project. But Asha recognizes that this ecological growth is an important, potentially transformative development and defiantly escapes the Maitu Community so she can plant the seed above ground. Dressed in a pink and purple wrap that seems as much a challenge to her grey uniform as to the sun's oppressive heat, Asha treks to find a plot for her seedling to take root. She finds the tree from her dream, now dead from a lack of nourishment. She makes a bold act of faith by planting her seedling in the ground, even wringing sweat from her shirt to give it enough water to grow. The film ends with her curled up next to her seedling, as the two become a young tree.
I seem to diametrically oppose the filmgoer Kahiu quotes above. I just told you what happened in the film, but I'm not sure if that means I know what the film is about. If pressed, I'd opine that the film is about humankind seeking regeneration despite scarce resources and the grim promise of a bleak future. It's a film about hope. It's also science fiction. But I'm interpreting this as a Western white feminist from the United States.
Many—all?—of my reference points come from this cultural perspective. So I could make comparisons between Pumzi and Octavia Butler's work (and Butler's influence on Janelle Monáe), but in doing so I risk suggesting that an Kenyan filmmaker's work has the same perspectives and investments in the struggle for human survival as an African-American science fiction writer. (I could also be cute and point out that the Talking Heads' "Air" addresses how the elements can kill you.) Making the obvious comparison to the South African science fiction thriller District 9 gets us a little bit closer but is an insufficient, potentially offensive comparison. All of these linkages are essentialisms from a Western white female purview. In speaking about this film, I worry about speaking for this film.
One aspect of the film that I believe I am entirely unqualified to address from a critical feminist perspective is Asha's relationship with women. While men live in the Maitu Community, women seem to be in charge. Monitors like the one that woke up Asha at the beginning of the film are present throughout the community, offering basic instructions and gentle yet stern correctives to Maitu citizens. Like many robots and cyborgs in science fiction, these monitors possess a female-coded speaking voice. All of Asha's superiors are women as well. I'm not sure if these women report to a higher power. Nor do I want to assume that if they do, that the entity who oversees the Maitu Community is a literal, figurative, or spirtual manifestation of patriarchal authority. But I find it fascinating that gender, sexual, or racial difference are left unaddressed in Asha's terse exchanges with these women. Honestly, I don't know how to interpret these interactions and, once again, refuse to offer up a conclusive interpretation.
What I will say is that Kahiu's Pumzi is a poetic, imaginative, and assured film that seems to suggest a universality with regard to the will of human existence while remaining opaque about its cultural politics. It is a film that doesn't explain itself. If that simply means I find it impossible to conclusively say what the film is about, that seems to suggest that it is open to but not governed by interpretation. Perhaps I'm Othering Kahiu by equivocating. But I'd feel more comfortable having the film—which offers a universal tale in a place at once affixed to and in avoidance of historical and regional specificity—speak for itself. If that means it challenges those interpretations in the process, then I look forward to watching the artistic evolution of a filmmaker whose work initiates those kinds of responses.
Pumzi is streaming on Netflix Instant as part of Africa First: Volume One a collection of short films from contemporary African filmmakers.