We've been psyched for Pumzi, Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu's water war featurette, ever since it made a splash at Sundance. The film may be only 20 minutes long, but Kahiu's depiction of a parched authoritarian arcology is stunning.

Pumzi occurs 35 years after a (probably nuclear) World War III (a.k.a. "The Water Wars") in an underground city that is constantly on the verge of dessication. The outside world is a lifeless desert inferno, but life behind the walls is just as desolate. Citizens are prescribed "dream suppressants" and the holographic Maitu Council rule with draconian vise grip. The city's luckier citizens, like our protagonist Asha (Kudzani Moswela), work as bureaucrats or magistrates (Asha's a museum curator). The lower classes produce power for the city using archaic workout equipment (such as rickety treadmills and rowing machines) or sponge up errant droplets of water in the lavatory.

Like Logan's Run, the audience gets the sense that community's imperatives flew off the rails a while ago, and the only thing keeping society whirring is the monomaniacal pursuit to preserve moisture. Sprite's slogan — "Obey your thirst" — is disturbingly prescient here.


Despite their cotton-mouthed existence and daily battery of mood inhibitors, the people of the city take dystopian androgyny to sexy new heights. Everyone — even the Maitu Council's goon squads — is clothed in breathable sheer fabric and cue-balled to beat the heat. Furthermore, the quest for maximum water preservation leads to lot of brow-mopping and towel wringing. It's a torrid, sexless future, so it's fitting that everyone's hot and bothered.

These world-building moments are what make Pumzi so terrifically effective — like Mad Max or Waterworld (but with a more claustrophobic setting) the film forces audiences to reflect on their daily use of a resource that's perpetually taken for granted. The citizens are allowed one (1) water jug, and it's no accident that these containers — with their ridges and grip bumps — strongly resemble sports drink bottles. How many bottles and cans have you gone through today? This week?

These touches — plus an omnipresent futureshock score by Siddhartha Barnhoorn — make Pumzi intriguing and atmospheric. As far as the plot goes, Kahiu wisely knows when not to over-explain things: despite her dream suppressants, Asha the curator has been having visions about a tree in the wastes. She then receives a mysterious plant and soil sample with geographical coordinates on it. The Maitu Council silences Asha and condemns her to become a calisthenic battery on a RowMaster. At this point, Asha investigates the coordinates. The ending to Pumzi is open-ended, and the conclusion dabbles in mysticism that works with the shortness of the film. If Pumzi were longer, these messianic flourishes would be less welcome given the crazed clockwork social engineering of the first act.

But that's just an academic quibble — Pumzi is a beautiful movie. It's a warning, a metaphor, and a canny pastiche of prior dystopian scifi flicks (indeed, the whole look is very THX 1138). Pumzi's society wastes its human capital to preserve meager resources. If we don't get our act together, it'll be our great-grandchildren on the municipal treadmill.


[You can find more information about Pumzi at the film's main site. Photos via Inspired Minority Pictures and One Pictures. Many thanks to the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn for screening this film.]