308: “Pumzi” (Wanuri Kahiu)

                Spoiler alert: you might want to go watch Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi (Swahili: “breath”) for yourself before listening to me rave about it. It’s a 20 minute science fiction short, and it might have one of the coolest, quietest twists I’ve seen in a long time.
                If you watch sci fi the set up might feel familiar. Sometime in the future the world is dying. Humans live in small, locked-down communities with water as their most precious resource. People take “Dream Suppressants.” Outside is only empty wastelands and garbage and radiation and dry dust. The last trees are gone. In that world we follow Asha, the curator of her settlement’s Virtual Natural History Museum. When she receives a sample of soil that seems, contrary to everything she’s been told, capable of growing new life, she goes out to find where the soil came from and plant the last seed from her museum. In the end, far out past exhaustion, she gives that seed the last of her drinking water and curls up around where it’s planted. As the camera pulls back, we watch from above as the tree grows, its branches reaching out.
                And then we get the last twenty seconds. The camera keeps pulling back, and we see that the tree Asha planted is a few dunes away from a stand of trees. A stand of trees that is actually a forest, a giant forest, thicker and thicker as the camera keeps pulling back. The last sound we hear is the beginning of a thunderstorm. We watched that first seed grow in rapid time, so you could read the end as suggesting that Asha’s tree seeded a new forest. But I don’t think so. The tree she planted is separate from the others, and we don’t see the forest starting. We see that it already is. That means that this isn’t a story about a hero saving the day. By dreaming, by going out past her walls and sharing the water she had, Asha didn’t “fix” anything. The forest was there. The rainstorm was there. Her courage, her willingness to share what she has, is how we get to join them—like how we join the sky, for a moment, every time we breathe.

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