Kenyan movie Pumzi hits Sundance

Pumzi, Kenya’s first science fiction film, will screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Pumzi, a movie by writer/director Wanuri Kahiu imagines a dystopian future 35 years after water wars have torn the world apart.

East African survivors of the ecological devastation remain locked away in contained communities, but a young woman in possession of a germinating seed struggles against the governing council to bring the plant to Earth’s ruined surface.

wanuri_kahiu.jpgThe short film “started off as a small script about what kind of world we would have to be if we had to buy fresh air,” Kahiu told in a Skype interview. Like recent standouts District 9 and Sleep Dealer, the short film taps into Third World realities and spins them forward for dramatic effect.

Made with grant money from Focus Features’ Africa First short film program, the Goethe Institute and the Changamoto arts fund, Pumzi will share the screen with two other films as part of Sundance’s New African Cinema program.

Kenya, frequently used for location shooting, boasts experienced crews but little funding. “You just hustle,” Kahiu said. “There is no set funding option. You borrow against banks, you do anything that you can to make your film.”

Distribution is another difficulty. While Kahiu hopes to offer Pumzi online, the Kenyan infrastructure is too underdeveloped to effectively distribute the film in her country. Meanwhile, directors in the country have been watching the prolific film community in neighboring Nigeria for inspiration.

“Nollywood has its own distribution network and Kenya is slowly copying and picking up that very grass-roots distribution route,” Kahiu said.

Focus Features granted Kahiu complete control of her film. After producing commissions for African networks and retaining no rights, she helped create Dada Productions. Her first feature-length movie, From a Whisper, a dramatization built around the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, garnered five African Academy Movie Awards.

Kahiu’s future plans include expanding Pumzi to feature length as well as nurturing her local film community.
“I would like to work and build an industry, so that everyone walks away well-paid, with great hours,” Kahiu said. “Just a humane society, of sorts.”

Pumzi will play five times at Sundance between Friday and Jan. 30. For those unable to make the Utah film festival, the trailer and photos on offer a glimpse at Kahiu’s sci-fi short.

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