Wanuri Kahiu’s film Pumzi takes place in east Africa, 35 years after a World War III that broke out over water disputes. In the film’s post-apocalyptic reality, people live in indoor communities where the lack of water dictates the way of life, and urine and perspiration undergo a process of purification and reused as drinking water. The film’s protagonist is a curator in a virtual museum of nature, who one day receives clumps of soil in a box. She plants an old seed in it and it almost immediately germinates. She then seeks permission from her superiors to investigate the possibility of life outside of the enclosure. When her request is refused and she is removed from her job, she escapes the museum. She walks in the desert until she collapses, places the growing seedling in the soil and splashes it with the final drops in her water bottle. In the film’s last shot, a tree grows from her body, in the middle of the desert.
The film has the feel and esthetics of science fiction with an ecologic aspect. The young curator’s escape from the underground space is likened to an escape from all that could be delineated within oppressive logic and reason. The fantastic tale is depicted as a mythology, but is planted in an Africa of the future, as is to be expected from an Afro-futurist work. The film has naturalistic, spiritual and fantastic elements, which all exist in a futuristic space that allows for the unique merge of technology, spiritualism and ecology. Accordingly, its title “Pumzi” means “breath” in Swahili.
The film deviates from all that is perceived as stereotypically African: there are no nature or jungles, no exoticism and villages. On the contrary: there is a sophisticated futuristic society administered by technology and alienated from nature. The female protagonist has nothing to do with masks or voodoo rituals, nor is she presented naked as part of nature: she is a scientist representing the urge to seek the truth and restore the world’s natural resources. The fantasy aspect is recruited to narrate a future mythology, which disrupts the linear direction between past, present and future, and to depict an Africa that is different from common and accustomed representations.