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Filmmaker contemplates a world without water and air

Saturday September 5 2009

Wanuri Kahiu directs an actress in the latest film. Photos/ ANTHONY NJOROGE

Wanuri Kahiu directs an actress in the latest film. Photos/ ANTHONY NJOROGE  


Wanuri Kahiu once envisioned a world without water. As she imagined the resultant chaos, a movie idea formed in her mind.

The award-winning filmmaker, for whom movie making is a way of life, penned the script for a short film to portray a world without water and air. She called it Pumzi.

“The film started as a joke as a friend and I looked at the possibility of living in a place where we paid for air,” she said.

A science fiction movie, Pumzi is set 35 years after World War III. It is set for release next month, by which time, going by the current electricity and water rationing in the country, it will look more real than fictional.

“When I was writing it, it seemed like something that would happen years from now but it’s ironic that we are all suffering because we have destroyed nature. I am glad the movie is done so that people can see where we might be headed if we continue like this,” Wanuri said.

“Wangari Maathai has been talking about this issue for years and we never heed her advice so I am not here to tell people to conserve the environment alone, I am showing them what will happen if we don’t. I show a land where people recycle their own water to survive.”


The script

Pumzi is set to be released on October 21 at the Kenya International Film Festival.

It took Wanuri two years to come up with the script and a fortnight to shoot it. It follows the story of Asha who seeks to reclaim the world from all the destruction.

Asha is a curator at a virtual natural history museum in the Maitu Community located in East Africa. The land is toxic and barely habitable. One day she receives a sample of soil that is not toxic and she decides to use it to plant a seed in her possession.

Asha and her fellow humans live in an enclosed place and anyone who wants to go outside must apply for a visa. She is denied one and decides to break out to plant the seed.

Pumzi was shot in South Africa on a low budget and does not feature any Kenyan actors.

Fly actors

“I had $25,000 (Sh1.9 million) and could not afford to fly the actors I needed to use in the film and I settled on those from southern Africa,” she said.
The 29-year-old got the grant to make the film from the Goethe Institut, Focus Features and Changamoto Fund.

“I was introduced to the producers of the film, Focus Features, and they were passionate about the project, profoundly knowledgeable about sci-fi and exceptionally generous with their expertise and resources,” she said.

Wanuri is proud that Focus Features also worked on the global hit, District 9, and hopes that the two films will go a long way in ensuring that more sci-fi flicks can come from the continent.

She hopes to get the film to be showed at the Cannes Film Festival and eventually at the Oscars for a shot at the Best Short Film.

“I have a lot of hope for this film and I have a feeling it will do very well because I gave it my all,” she said.

Her last film, From a Whisper, a reconstruction of some of the events that followed the 1998 August 7 bombing in Nairobi, won five awards at the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) in Nigeria in April.

The film bagged awards in the Best Editing, Best Screenplay, Best Sound Track and Best Film categories. It also won her the Best Director title.

“I am still surprised I won big at the awards because the film was up against some major films on the continent. I didn’t make it for the awards and, when the call came in at 3 a.m. that I had won, I cried a lot and was happy that I never made it to the awards because I would have broken down,” she said.

Wanuri, who graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Warwick, began hankering to make films after she visited former minister Raphael Tuju’s Ace Communications offices when she was 16 years old.

“I realised that there is life on TV and I fell in love with it immediately. From then on, I have not thought of doing anything else,” she said.

Professional gig

Her first professional gig was working on a behind-the-scenes production for a Hollywood movie, Catch a Fire, shot in South Africa based on the country’s struggle for independence, which featured renowned actor Derek Luke.

Her next job was on a short film, Rastar, based on the life of Kenyan rapper Nazizi, which was aired on M-Net.

She has also worked with M-Net on a documentary on Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai.

She is now working on her next project, a feature-length film on the Mau Mau freedom fighters.

“I have talked to people who actually fought in the war for independence and I have over 25 hours of interviews with the generals and fighters. It is time we told the story of the Kenyan fighters as told by them, not by the British,” she said.

Though she is a star filmmaker locally, she says she is yet to realise the benefits of her success.

“But I know it will happen and I am hoping it happens soon,” she said.