Wanuri Kahiu, “Pumzi” (“Breath”) (2009)
Just over 20 minutes long, this movie short from Kenya is set in a post-apocalyptic future where a global war has rendered the surface of the Earth dangerously radioactive and completely barren and water has all but disappeared. The remnants of the human population live underground and are ruled by a highly repressive technocratic state that outlaws daydreaming, in case it encourages independent thinking and innovation. In this sterile environment, Asha (Kudzani Moswela) works as a curator at the Virtual Reality Museum where she grows hydroponic plants. One day she receives a parcel with no return address. She opens it and finds soil inside that’s not radioactive and has a high water content. Information about the soil’s original location and its latitude and longitude co-ordinates is enclosed but that’s it. Impossible, she knows – but she pops some of the soil into a jar, pours water into it and inserts one of her hydroponic plants into the soil. Instead of going black and wilting to death, the plant starts to germinate. Asha reports her findings to her superiors via a PC-conferencing keyboard that vocally pronounces her thoughts and reproduces her dreams visually, and requests an exit visa to leave her part of the warren and travel to the area where the soil sample was found by the unknown parcel-sender. Incensed, Asha’s superiors order her arrest and the destruction of her work. Guards quickly arrive in the Museum and smash things and take her into custody. Helped by a janitor (Charlotte Burger), Asha retrieves a compass, her plant and her water bottle and escapes her underground home into the desert.
The dystopian future world where Asha lives and works is beautifully and starkly presented: it’s a minimalist and sterile arena where everyone dresses the same and has the same hair-style, or none rather, as in these times of rigorous water rationing, washing your hair wastes the precious liquid. Every single drop of water or its derivation must be saved so when Asha uses the communal bathroom or works up a sweat exercising on the gym equipment which is designed to convert human energy into kinetic energy for electricity, she must pop the waste product into a steriliser and use the purified water. Sooner or later she’s going to run out of water as every time she recycles it, some of it must be lost through her metabolism as water vapour in the air she breathes out. So she’d have to buy a new supply of water and that would put her in debt to the totalitarian state. Clever idea! We see just a small part of this society but as it deals with such deeply personal issues as conserving and recycling your own body wastes, it tells us much about the control the state exercises over Asha and the other humans without any need for voice-over exposition or dialogue between characters. Asha and the people she interacts with show very little emotion – being poker-faced here may mean the difference between life and death – but we get a sense of Asha’s desperation as she becomes a fugitive to preserve the few freedoms she has: freedom to dream, freedom to hope for a different future, freedom to investigate and follow a particular area of scientific research and to bring possible benefits to others.
Moswela’s acting is spare and precise; the camera often focusses on her face as emotions flit quickly over her eyes and cheeks, or on her long slender fingers as she opens the parcel, puts the soil into the jar and then the plant inside. She bridges the two halves of the film, the first half taking place underground and the second half featuring her travels in the harsh desert seeking the tree of her dreams. Asha’s wanderings look like the stuff of allegory, referencing perhaps the wanderings of Jesus in the desert for 40 days and nights subject to the Devil’s temptations, or the hardships Siddhartha Gautama put himself under before he found enlightenment and became the Buddha. She meets with superficial triumph followed by despair but never gives up hope for her plant. Some viewers can guess in advance what happens to Asha but her context leaves her with virtually no options.
Preservation of the earth’s resources is a strong theme as is also the relationship of an individual to the State and how the State can have a stranglehold over people’s bodies, thoughts, imagination and behaviour. There is much symbolism as well: the plant represents hope, the future and the regeneration of life among other things; its germination paradoxically puts Asha’s own life in danger. Asha represents the independent thinker, the lone seeker who must exist on the edges of society to find truth. Her relationship to her people mirrors the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in which prisoners in a cave believe shadows and illusions represent reality as they are compelled to face the cave walls only, until one prisoner is freed and is able to look outside the cave. Asha could also be an Earth Mother giving her life to nurture her plant.
The film might benefit from a longer and more involved treatment of its themes, ideas and characters: we learn very little about Asha’s background and her motivations and why she’s prepared to be a fugitive rather than give in to her superiors. As it is, it’s recommended watching as a description of what our world could be like after global wars have made Earth sterile and destroyed democracy and political freedoms.