Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut tells the amazingly true story of a self-taught teen inventor in Malawi in this earnest and charming story that hits a bit of turbulence.
Academy Award-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor originally planned to stay behind the camera in his directorial debut but he chose to star alongside Maxwell Simba to bring to life the real dynamic of a young child inventor and his father, a symbol of perseverance. There’s something discomforting when you root for a character to invent, at great personal cost, something that the character should have had easy access to in the first place. The triumph of ingenuity over poverty is central to the story of Malawi’s William Kamkwamba, the windmill-building co-author of the best-selling memoir The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind whose story has finally been adapted to the big screen.
Ejiofor’s script takes places in 2001 Malawi when things were hard for most of the impoverished African republic. Farmer Trywell (Ejiofor) hopes that education will eventually make life easier for his three children than how its been for himself and his wife Agnes (Aissa Maiga). The local school, though, isn’t free and though William (Simba) is a particularly smart student, his family cannot pay his tuition and he cannot attend school. The Kamkwamba family isn’t the only family in their position though: Rural communities all across Malawi are being squeezed of everything, getting only empty promises from the latest corrupt politicians. One of the biggest issues facing these rural areas is that grain prices are forever falling and grain production itself is at the mercy of rain although Malawi is currently being plagued by droughts.
Amid this escalating crisis (desperate residents begin selling the trees on their property for lumber, selling parts of their house and their clothing just to make ends meet), William begins to wonder if his ability to make something out of nothing – he repairs antique radios and creates tools out of junkyard errata – could somehow bring his village an answer. Though he cannot attend school, he’s given admittance to its library by a new teacher (Lemogang Tsipa) who is secretly dating his sister (Lily Banda), as well as the librarian (Noma Dumezweni). He begins reading a physics book which in term gives him the inspiration to use scant materials to build a possible wind turbine that powers a water pump which in turn could constantly keep fields irrigated. But there are obstacles to overcome, not least his own disllusioned father’s lack of faith in the project and his belief in him.
It is an inspirational tale – one whose illustration of low-cost scientific solutions to relief-impoverished conditions made the real-life protagonist (briefly seen in the end in a clip of a TED talk he hosted) a heroic exemplar. Yet Ejiofor’s inexperience behind the camera shows in flat pacing and an inability to build suspense at times. His characters don’t reveal any unexpected layers – it’s all right there on the surface for you to witness. Dick Pope’s widescreen photography, the color setting and other tech/design elements are well-turned. Yet the film lacks the atmosphere to render the deprivations its characters suffer vividly palpable, or the cinematic style keep us held by a story that feels obvious at every turn (I mean we know how the film ends because it’s written in history already).
Ejiofor is less compelling than usual in the film. His screenplay gives his character a couple emotional notes that soon grow very repetitious. He’s produced a film with a fine message and brought to life a story about an extraordinary and intelligent young men and that is what makes the film work though. Simba’s innocence and charm as the young William makes for a compelling adventure for a film. Ejiofor’s direction is nuanced, but seeing as it’s a story that most people are familiar with, his and William’s performances and emotional trajectory deliver exactly the improving message promised on the syllabus.
“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the Premiere’s Category. At press time and before its premiere, the film was to be distributed by Netflix on March 1, 2019 in a limited theatrical release as well as on the streaming service.
Director: Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Country: United Kingdom.
Language(s): Chichewa, English.
Screenplay: Chiwetel Ejiofor, based on the novel of the same title by William Kamkwamba & Bryan Mealer.
Music by: Antonio Pinto.
Cinematography: Dick Pope.
Production: Participant Media, BBC Films, British Film Institute, Potboiler Productions.
With: Maxwell Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aissa Maiga, Lily Banda, Noma Dumezweni, Lemogang Tsipa.