Wanuri Kahiu’s short film, Pumzi, and the Wachowski brothers’ film, The Matrix, engage in a comprehensive depiction of how technology and truth function in a dystopian society. In each film, technology is depicted as a tool used by authoritarian systems from under which protagonists struggle for both truth and freedom. Technology and progress are represented as negative and enslaving, while intuition and hope emerge as the tools of freedom. Where intellectual knowledge culminates in a destruction of the earth and becomes useful only as a tool of authoritarian control, hope and intuition become synonymous with freedom and life. Although the two movies diverge on the point of defining freedom, hope and intuition are exposed as more capable of attaining freedom than the “old” ideas of progress.
These two films are in dialogue with each other because they each premise their stories on a war in which humans were the aggressors that destroyed the natural world and allowed for an authoritative power to emerge. In Pumzi, newspaper headlines from the past tell a story of a scorched earth where a war for water occurred (Pumzi 00:56) and in The Matrix, Morpheus explains that the earth was scorched by weaponry in a war between man and machine: “We know that it was us that scorched the sky” (Morpheus 0:41:00+). In each movie, war and a scorched earth act as a catalyst for the take-over of an authoritarian government. By depicting the humans as the catalyst for war, the value of human progression comes into question. Through unbridled technological advancement the humans destroyed the planet, and thus, they progressed negatively. Supporting the idea that intellectual progress is a negative progress, in The Matrix the actual creation of artificial intelligence culminates as the pinnacle of their downfall: “We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to AI” (Morpheus 00:41:00+). The unbridled pursuit of knowledge and technology has led to destruction of the planet in each film. The idea that intellectual progress can lead to detriment runs against the concept that knowledge is “marvelous” and synonymous with progress. This counter-interpretation of the value of knowledge is reflected in the role of how technology is used by authority in each film.
What ensues in the aftermath of each movie’s war is a containment and manipulation of knowledge by a new government/authority through the use of the technology of virtual space. The museum in which Asha works is titled the “Virtual Natural Museum” (Pumzi 00:04:29). This title suggests a framing of the real. It frames naturalness within the artificial. The Matrix also blends reality and virtuality in it’s opening scene by zooming the camera into the computer screen to the point of actually entering a viewpoint from within the numbers. This encapsulating of reality in virtuality suggests that authority is working towards the control and degradation of the real. “The Matrix is everywhere. (…) It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth (…) a prison for your mind” (Morpheus 00:28:00). Their own technology has led to the imprisonment of their minds. What is real is that which is suppressed by authority through the use of technology.
The authoritarian government in each film controls natural knowledge in order to control the citizens; keeping them beholden to the mistakes of their past through the use of their own destructive technology, as outlined earlier. In the opening scene, Pumzi depicts the value the government places on historical knowledge by showing remnants of the past in a small room: (Pumzi 0:1:05-0:1:24). That room contains elements of the natural world that are preserved, but decrepit. Plants and creatures of the past are decaying in filthy jars and a skull lays on a table unprotected. The lighting is dim and only one person, Asha, is in the room, sleeping. The viewer’s overall sensory experience in this scene is that of stillness and an embalmed natural knowledge. The government in Pumzi chooses to downplay the significance of natural history/ knowledge and discourage knowledge about the outside world. The visual representation of containment is reflected by the virtual containment of natural knowledge. In The Matrix, the progression of human knowledge is stopped in a time before the war and contained by a computer program, a virtual world. The actual thought processes and knowledge people have of themselves is completely manufactured. The containment of knowledge in The Matrix is further depicted by the use of a computer screen in the opening scene: (The Matrix 0:0:30-0:01:00). In the first minute of the film, two voices are heard while the screen flashes with computer command prompts and numbers that represent “reality’s” data. This scene resonates with the containment of knowledge in Pumzi, where, when she attempts to speak to someone about what she has found, a voice is heard, but only a computer screen with images of people who are not actually speaking is seen. The resonance rests in the depiction of humans interacting with an artificial world, a world that is controlled and manipulated through virtuality.
Initially, each protagonist pursues truth through old methods of understanding. Asha works in the virtual natural history lab and Neo uses his computer in a search for knowledge/truth, although he doesn’t know that’s what he’s doing until Morpheus explains it to him (Matrix 00:27:00). As the movie progresses, old knowledge is forgotten and an emphasis on inner truth takes the lead. Pumzi represents intellectual knowledge as an artifact that is regulated and controlled by the government for the good of the planet. The two films diverge on the point of what attaining freedom means to the individual. In The Matrix, freedom from the computers means a new civilization, Zion. They find refuge in the earth’s core, where they build a city and use machinery. It does not seem that their mode of civilization has changed completely from the old ways that led to their downfall. In Pumzi, freedom evolves as the choice of sacrifice. After trusting the earth, the soil, and forgoing old ways of knowing her place in the world, demonstrated by a dropping of the compass (16:16), Asha finds her way to the healthy soil. As she considers her own thirst she chooses to give the water to the plant: (Pumzi 15:30-15:39). In this scene, Asha looks at the water bottle and the camera focuses on her dry mouth. The film depicts an almost mystical bond between Asha’s body and the plant. When she realizes her thirst, she understands that the plant must need water. This natural bond opposes the virtual representation of what is real. It is an opposition to the virtual control used by authority.
Since the progression of knowledge and technology is represented as what went wrong in society, human nature attempts to regain positive progress through belief and hope in dreams. The dream world removes layers of logic and conscience allowing the characters to have an intuitive subconscious experience culminating in their enlightenment. Their dreams are a place where hope can exist without the fear of repression. Hope becomes the key to escaping from and discrediting authoritarian control. In one scene, Pumzi cuts away from a focus on historical knowledge and preservation to Asha’s dream world: (0:1:25-0:1:50). Zooming in on Asha’s closed eyes, the film jumps into her dreams where her eyes open. The importance of her opening eyes is highlighted by make-up jetting out like rays around them. The effect of cutting from a scene in a dimly lit room containing studied relics of the past where a woman is sleeping and into a sunlit, open world, where the first focus is on her eyes opening, places emphases on her awakening to the truth of her dreams. Her awakening in the dream world is warm and welcoming. She is forgetting the truth of reality’s past, which is cold and laborious, and entering a new place of hope and happiness that exists in the completely opposite landscape from that of the lab. From the reality of a cold dark lab and into a dreamed, brightly lit, unending desert, Asha reaches for the tree as the scene cuts back to a computer voice telling her to “take [her] dream suppressants.” She awakens to hope, but does not yet distrust the guidance of the government. The end of this scene depicts a reawakening into a world in which dreams are actively suppressed and she takes her medication. Asha has not fully accepted her own strength, but it is here that she does realize a strength not in-line with that of the government.
The Matrix treats the dream world differently than Pumzi. It is in the dream world that authority manipulates and controls humans: “The Matrix is a computer generated dream world, built to keep us under control in order to change the human being into [a battery]” (Morpheus 00:43:30). The dream world in The Matrix is an artificial reality, whereas in Pumzi, it is a place of truth and hope that is repressed by authority. These two treatments of the dream world initially seem very different, but a similarity still lingers. It is in the dream world that Neo embraces his intuition and realizes his power and it is in the dream world that Asha embraces her intuition and experiences hope. The dream world, whether artificial or natural, is depicted as a place for understanding falseness and finding truth. Dreams are tantamount to hope and it is when the human mind gives up “old” knowledge, or reality in this case, that freedom is discovered.
This reversal is not refuted by the humans in the film, but is embraced by a resurgence of their hope and belief in the power of oneself. Asha casts aside the control of her virtual oppressors, finding strength in her belief, and escapes into the real world (Pumzi 00:12:15). There is a lot of emphasis placed on seeing things for oneself. Asha has to go out into the world alone and experience the reality of nature herself, and as Neo awakens on the ship, Morpheus explains to him that it is easier for him to learn if he sees things for himself: (The Matrix 00:38:00). This moment in the film brings forth the reality of the damage that has been caused both to the world and to human civilization through the use of old technology. As Asha enters the world in this scene, it is covered in trash. She steps through the wasteful “progress” of the past and into the “desert of the real” (Morpheus 00:41:15) much like Neo sees the world for the first time as it is, a wasted land. It is a world of pain and suffering where the only repose one has is in the hope of finding “the one,” or in Asha’s case, the living tree. The emphasis on hope is an aspect of human knowledge that cannot be controlled by the authoritarian government and therefore emerges as a simple ability that operates inside of the individual. Hope and belief generate the strength to step into the real world in search of truth and freedom. No matter the knowledge of how bad the world’s progress, hope is an element of humanity that is intuitive and freeing. This freedom can be found only in the strength of one’s own belief that they can be free.
Establishing hope as the means to freedom, the two films suggest that the pursuit of concrete knowledge and technology is a folly that ends only in the world’s destruction and human oppression. What occurs once the two protagonists embrace hope and begin to search for truth and freedom is where the two movies are essentially different. Neo’s ability to conquer the authoritarian technology through belief in himself allows Zion to flourish and ensures the survival of the human race. Asha’s ability to forego technology and authority culminates in her complete connection with the natural world in a motherly fashion, she literally acts as a mother to nature. As explained through her connection to the earth through her dreams and the moment where her thirst is represented as a connection to the plant, she becomes isolated from civilization. In one of the last scenes of the film, (Pumzi 00:19:00), she wipes the sweat from around her body and between her exposed breasts. This can be interpreted as a mother-like caring for the plant. The plant is like a newborn child that receives nourishment from her breast. It is not the human civilization that is depicted as surviving through her awakening, but nature itself. Whether or not she cares that her own race survives is speculative.
This essay has outlined the negativity of technological and intellectual progress in two films spanning ten years. Arising from the human’s unbridled pursuit for knowledge and technology, the world and the individual has suffered. From there, authority merged with technology, becoming synonymous. Technology is redefined as the tool of authority and their merger is understood as the ultimate oppression. Highlighting the negativity of technology and progress, both films then shift focus away from the damage and oppression caused by the pursuit of knowledge and technology and shift to a focus on the dream world where hope emerges as more powerful than technology and progress. Hope and intuition allow the rejection of that virtual authority and encourage acceptance of the strength in one’s own ability and being.
Comparing these two films exposes similar treatments of the need of hope to overcome technological oppression. Their similarities are vast, but where The Matrix utilizes hope as a method to ensure the preservation of an organism that destroyed the world, Pumzi makes a different statement and suggests that hope leads to redemption. The importance of freedom from oppression, in Pumzi, is not fully realized in an effort to forgive humanity’s errors of progress, but instead is a way to restore the natural world. Although the two films expose a theme of hope and intuition as a rebuttal to the follies of old progress, through comparison, their definitions of the freedom hope will attain are astonishingly different. One is a freedom of the mind and the human race, and the other is a freedom from guilt and a method for redemption.
The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999. DVD.
Pumzi. Dir. Wanuri Kahiu. Africa First, 2010. Netflix streaming.