A group of shamans in masks and feathers walk through the long grass of an African landscape, chanting for the rains to come. One of these magical figures is on stilts, prefiguring the windmill that schoolboy William will build against all the odds.
Awarded the Alfred P Sloane prize at the Sundance Film Festival for an outstanding film with science content, The Boy who Harnessed the Wind is all heart and beauty. A passion project directed by and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Netflix has picked up the film in all territories except the UK where the BBC own the distribution rights.
This is a powerful study of a family and village in drought-struck Malawi, not a faceless tale of poverty and famine but an intimate drama that draws us into the world of characters based on the real-life people surrounding William Kamkwamba, who went on to a successful academic career and the penning of the autobiography of the same name.
William, played by newcomer Maxwell Simba, was 17 at this time of crisis. With a gift for innovation and against all the odds he pursues every way he can to attempt a piece of engineering, a windmill built from scraps at the junkyard and, significantly, his father’s bicycle, in an attempt to help his drought-ridden village.
Far from aiding the villages, we see the government is corrupt and greedy, more intent on exploitation than aid. William’s father, played by Ejiofor, is a man of principle but stuck in tradition, and for a great part of the film is William’s greatest obstacle. Ejiofor turns in a passionate, intense performance as the man almost broken by tragedy and disillusionment.
“I was so struck with this extraordinary story on so many levels,” he told us ahead of the premiere screening at Sundance. “The themes are about family and community and about an individual striving to fulfil their potential. There’s the perseverance that William demonstrated and the power of education.
“After I adapted the book into a first draft, I started the process of going back and forth to Malawi and trying to understand the dynamics there and see if I could put together an authentic experience. What I was hoping for was that an audience could go into this space and spend time with these people. They live in a village community but with incredibly big lives and I wanted to capture that in cinemascope with these vast landscapes and extraordinary places. That was the energy and heart of it. Also, they were at the thin end of the wedge in terms of struggling with economics and climate and all these things we’re thinking of globally. These people were totally under pressure. Out of that comes this young boy who decides he’ll try and do something under his own initiative. It’s incredibly exciting to launch it in this environment at an international film festival where we can all share and discuss it.”
“There are so many themes it brings out that are important to the world but actually it’s just a very good story,” say producers Andrea Calderwood and Gail Egan. “We’d known Chiwetel for a long time when he brought the idea to us. It was a snowy day In London, and he sat in our office and talked it over with us. It’s a huge story with all these layers and depth, but he’d thought it all through and had such commitment. We were bowled over.”
This is Ejiofor’s directorial debut, so it was a challenge to juggle all the roles demanded of him on a big scale production.
“It was a lot to deal with and achieve but it never felt entirely overwhelming because you find there’s a support network that’s been set up on the film with your collaborators. It’s like on an aeroplane, you look at the crew and they don’t seem to be panicking so you feel reassured it must work!”
Kamkwamba himself was also at the premiere.
“When I saw the film for the first time, I had mixed feelings,” he tells us. “Some of those hard times you see – it takes me back and to relive that moment it’s painful, but it’s also exciting to share this story with the world and hope it gives people something.”
Now 31, Kamkwamba was invited to speak at a TED conference when he was just 19 and his story inspired people in business to sponsor his secondary education. He graduated from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire four years ago. He has also been a guest speaker at Google’s science fair and voted one of TIME magazine’s ‘30 people under 30 changing the world.’
It is no surprise that education is a huge theme running through the film’s narrative.
“I know more than you,” young William respectfully tells his father. “You sent me to school.”
By the end of the film we see the shamans still have a place in mourning rituals and the initiation of a new chief, but it is the magic of science that turns the fortunes of William’s village.