By Rachel Pollock
Published March 30, 2010
PUMZI (Kiswahili for Breath), a futuristic science fiction short film written and directed by Kenyan-born Wanuri Kahiu with grants from Goethe-Institut, Changamoto arts fund and Focus Features and produced by South African Simon Hansen, made it into the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The 21-minute, a production of Hansen, who was also the producer of ALIVE IN JOBERG, the short film which was later expanded into DISTRICT 9, screened at the film festival January 22-30 as part of the New Africa Cinema Programme funded by Focus Features’ Africa First short film programme of the United States of America. RACHEL POLLOCK reports.
PUMZI is a dystopian film set in South Africa and Kenya. The story follows an East African woman as she leaves her isolated community 35 years after World War III to plant a seed in the barren earth that has been plagued by drought and deforestation.
In her vision of the future, ‘water wars’ have forced East African communities to live in complete seclusion. The plot touches upon concepts such as climate change and the recent droughts in Kenya, which make the subject matter extremely relevant.
Because science fiction is a genre that has been absent from African cinema, PUMZI challenges both the filmmakers and the viewers to think outside the box.
Kenyan director, Wanuri Kahiu, says, “PUMZI is a film about love and sacrifice. It is about being a mother to the environment. It is more than a representation of African values; it is a film that transcends race, culture, or borders. PUMZI is a story of futuristic Africa, and as Africa is full of stories that teach, cajole, remember ancestors, or forecast the future, PUMZI sits comfortably as a representation of the African story-telling culture.”
While filmmaking in East Africa is relatively new, it follows the example of the Nigerian Nollywood film sector which has grown to become the second largest film industry in the world. It has been estimated that 1,200 Nigerian films are produced annually, even though directors often run into numerous obstacles due to tight budgets and limited technology. The reason Nollywood films have reached so many Africans is because they appeal to a very specific African aesthetic. However, this aesthetic has also prevented the films from transcending cultures, particularly in the Western hemisphere. As a result, the Western media have often overlooked the successes of the industry.
Simon Hansen, the South African co-producer of PUMZI, emphasises the importance of following structure in film. “Hollywood films transcend the environment with which they are set because of the story, the structure, and how well-crafted the film is. African films and many other novice film industries around the world fail to recognize this process and are not able to break into this market as a result,” he says.
Programmes like those that helped fund PUMZI, train filmmakers on how to construct their stories in a way that will be understood by people around the world. The Sundance Institute East Africa, along with Focus Features, has provided artists like Wanuri Kahiu the skills and financial backing to express their visions effectively to a large audience.
Specifically, Focus Features, a division of NBC universal, announced its launch of the Africa First Programme in 2008 and awarded five African filmmakers a US$10,000 grant to finance production and post-production work on a short film while utilising African film industry resources. Three of the funded films were selected to screen at the Sundance Film Festival.
Meanwhile, Sundance Institute East Africa was conceived as a five-year programme facilitating exchange between US artists and East African writers, directors, and performers. In July 2010, the Institute will conduct a ‘theatre lab’ on the Kenyan Indian Ocean island of Manda in which African filmmakers can learn and thrive from one another.
Brooks Addicott who is the associate director of media relations at Sundance, says, “Our goal is to curate a programme in East Africa which reflects advancement of the individual artistic voice, mentorship, professionalism, and rigorous artistic standards. At the same time, we seek to recognise and honour the specific cultural, social, political, and artistic realities of East African life (unique to each country as well as to the continent).”
The future for the African film industry depends on distribution and access to film programmes that educate young filmmakers in Africa.
Kahiu says,”My hope for the African film industry is that it is taken more seriously as an industry, as a marketing tool for the country and as a reflection of society now.”
Programmes like Africa First prove that if given the resources and direction, African films can bridge the gap between the Hollywood film industry and film industries in the developing world.
A MediaGlobal Article