Wanuri Kahiu

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Wanuri Kahiu, Pumzi (still), 2009. © Focus Features.

Artist Cinemas presents Pumzi
Wanuri Kahiu

21 Minutes

Artist Cinemas
Week #6

June 3–9, 2020

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Wanuri Kahiu‘s Pumzi (2009), on view from Wednesday, June 3 through Tuesday, June 9, 2020.

In a future world made uninhabitable by the ecological devastation that ensued after the Third World War or the Water Wars, the remaining survivors of the East African region live under lockdown in controlled settlements. However, a young woman rebels against the directives of the governing council and ventures onto Earth’s ruined surface.

Running at barely twenty-two minutes, Wanuri’s short film compresses environmental concerns together with related issues of urgency: patriarchy, authoritarianism, technology, communication, classism, and poverty. Probably like everyone else living thirty-five years after the end of WWIII, the film’s protagonist Asha takes a suppressant to neutralize her dreams and to comply with the autocrat who regulates the living conditions of all survivors. Still, Asha manages to conceive a vision strong enough to take her beyond the hermetic confines of the astronautic underground settlement, where even sweat and urine are recycled and purified back into drinking water.

According to scholar Amanda Renée Rico, Wanuri’s film “imagines a black feminist future through ecological imagery,” in a manner comparable to the methods practiced by her compatriot Wangechi Mutu in her work The End of Eating Everything (2013), and found in “The Farming of the Gods” (2010), a short story by Haitian-American author Ibi Zoboi. Following Mutu, Rico suggests that “imaginative forms of world-building must connect systemic corruption to consumptive practices.” From there, Rico points out that these “Afrofuturist works use geographical spaces marked by ecological abuse (poisonous spores, pustules, desert landscapes), displacement (discarded objects) and violence (human limbs) to negotiate the symbolic and material ‘marking’ of black female bodies.” Ultimately, Rico writes, these works are to be understood as “meditations on new forms of transnational communities that not only survive but thrive in the twenty-first century and beyond.”

Pumzi is presented here alongside an interview with the filmmaker by Shariffa Ali. The film and the interview are the sixth and final installment of École du soir: Six Films, from Rwanda and Beyond, a program of films, video works, and interviews convened by artist Christian Nyampeta, and inaugurating Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

École du soir will run from April 29 through June 9, 2020, with each film running for one week and featuring an interview with the filmmaker by an invited guest.

Wanuri Kahiu in conversation with Shariffa Ali
Edited by Christian Nyampeta

Shariffa Ali (SA):
How are you doing today? What does it mean for you to be a storyteller and artist in this present moment of a paradigm shift?

Wanuri Kahiu (WK):
I’ve been reading a lot of Ursula Le Guin and in one of her talks she says, “I think hard times are coming and we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now. See through our fear-stricken society to other ways of being and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom.” And that really resonated with me because now we do need writers who remember freedom. And we need to think of new ways of imagining a new future, given the life and the circumstances under which we are living at the moment. But moreover, we need hopeful stories, so that we know we can plan for a hopeful future. Because I think stories are our leaders; they are something that we attach our dreams to. So, at the moment, it means that I am working as a voice for hope and a voice for possible change.

In Pumzi, dreams and musings of the mind are forbidden and actively suppressed. As an artist and, as your reflections above suggest, inherently a dreamer, can you share some insights into how you were able to craft a vivid depiction of this stark futuristic world?

I think that one way of limiting hope and freedom is by controlling the imagination and prohibiting expression. So, Pumzi emerged as a way of trying to create a simulation of a space where the dominant, silencing powers or authorities were trying to limit hope, and the ability to think of freedom. I truly believe that freedom comes as a response to our dreams and an exercise of our desire. So, if authorities were able to limit dreams, they could also limit the ideas of freedom and the ideas of wanting more out of life. That’s really how Pumzi was created…

Asha, the protagonist in Pumzi, is a curator at the “Virtual Museum of Natural History”—a brilliant concept. We’ve seen that those who have been in lockdown are having to experience significant events, milestones, social interactions, and life in general in a virtual construct. What are your thoughts about how art, culture, education, and socializing can continue to thrive while confined in the virtual environment?

When I started thinking about the Virtual Museum of Natural History, it was really in response to what I saw as an alarming lack of interaction with nature. I possibly couldn’t have foreseen that there would be a point in time when we would be held digitally captive in a very Octavia Butler-esque way, without being allowed to go outside. But initially confinement and isolation were an idea that came to me when I read E. M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops” (1909), in which everybody lives underground. That really stuck with me for the longest time. I saw it as a possible and maybe even inevitable consequence of our current mode of life that is so crushing and destructive of our environment. I thought that it would not be a great exaggeration if, in the near future, we were forced to live solely inside, because we would have made the outside uninhabitable. But right now, I think we are going to have to find ways to virtually create the outside, and to virtually connect with each other and socialize. I have a feeling that this virtual aspect of life will be the norm for a long time. So, AR and VR will begin to become part of our everyday life in ways that we hadn’t previously imagined.

In this world, Asha’s divergent behavior is punished by military-like figures of authority who destroy her possessions and sentence her to manual labor. When I think about this, and when I reflect on police brutality in South Africa, Kenya, and even in the USA, I wonder what thoughts you have on this kind of enforcement of law and order?

Well, I think that marginalized behavior is already punished by tying people to manual labor. Prisoners in Kenyan jails are forced to do manual labor. So, it wasn’t much of a stretch in Pumzi to envision punishment as, supposedly, a way to help create a better world. In the film, the utilitarian manual labor is a false ideal enforced upon individuals, and mirrors how punishment is effected in the world today. The idea here is that such punishment makes other people’s lives better, and that the same people who supposedly made life “uninhabitable” become enlisted to amend life. I thought this was a curious thing, and I believe this is actually how prison systems work already. I wanted to try and create, or recreate this differently, in a way as a movement from the punitive justice described above and more towards something like transformative justice, as advocated in the work of Mariame Kaba. Because, of course, law enforcement as we know it, as we can see, has no humanity in it. And the only kind of law enforcement or behavior modification that the world should be thinking about now and in the future has to look like transformative justice. Obviously, that’s not what’s happening at the moment…

For you, what is the proposal to humanity inherent in Asha’s small act of kindness towards the janitor as well as the ultimate sacrifice that she makes towards the end of the film?

I believe that kindness and sacrifice are a kind of reciprocity, and we cannot live in a world without reciprocity. We can’t live without giving and receiving, and kindness and sacrifice are just part of that cycle. Asha’s kind act towards the janitor is reciprocated later on in the film, and her sacrifice of the plant is reciprocated when the plant grows into a tree, even if this does not necessarily happen in her lifetime. It’s reciprocated through the benefit of others. I think that’s the ultimate sacrifice: It’s not doing something that can give us immediate gain, or from which we can reap benefits only for ourselves. Rather, it is so that somebody else, somewhere else, can benefit, can see the use, can live a better life. I strongly believe that it is our task to uplift future generations, to help them stand on our shoulders, and to leave them with something better than what we found. And in turn, these future generations will leave something better for those after them. That vision can only come from kindness and sacrifice.

Wanuri Kahiu is a Kenyan film director, producer, and author. Her films have received several awards and nominations, including Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture for her feature film From a Whisper at the 2009 Africa Movie Academy Awards. In 2010, her short science-fiction film Pumzi premiered at Sundance film festival and went on to win best short film at Cannes Independent Film Festival, among other awards. Kahiu is co-founder of AFROBUBBLEGUM, a media collective dedicated to supporting African art.

Shariffa Chelimo Ali is an international creative leader committed to working with an open heart at the intersection of the performing arts and humanitarianism. Originally from Kenya and raised South Africa, Shariffa has been a New York resident since 2013, working primarily as a director, community organizer, and administrator at The Public Theater and The New Group, among others. She’s lectured and directed at NYU, Brooklyn College, Yale University, and Princeton University. Her debut virtual reality short Atomu is part of the official selection at the Sundance Film Festival 2020.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Feminism, Film
Afrofuturism, Science Fiction, Water & The Sea, Africa, Environment, Blackness
Return to École du soir: Six Films, from Rwanda and Beyond
Return to Artist Cinemas

Wanuri Kahiu is a Kenyan film director, producer, and author. Her films have received several awards and nominations, including Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture for her feature film From a Whisper at the 2009 Africa Movie Academy Awards. In 2010, her short science-fiction film Pumzi premiered at Sundance film festival and went on to win best short film at Cannes Independent Film Festival, among other awards. Kahiu is co-founder of AFROBUBBLEGUM, a media collective dedicated to supporting African art.


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