A film review of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, staring and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor. By Michael Renouf
Recently released on Netflix, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the incredible true story of 13-year-old William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba) and his efforts to help his village in the midst of one of the worst droughts in living memory.
This movie is based on the 2009 book of the same name written by William and Bryan Mealer and marks young Maxwell’s acting debut.
This was the Nigerian-British Chiwetel Ejiofor’s first stint as director of a full feature film. He also wrote the script and took on one of the leading roles in the film as William’s father – Trywell.
Over the years, Ejiofor has become one of the most sought-after British actors, with memorable roles in such films as Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster and The Martian, Roland Emmerich’s 2012, Biyi Bandele’s Half a Yellow Sun, Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene and Steve McQueen’s multi-award-winning film, 12 Years a Slave. He won a BAFTA award and nominations for the Academy and Golden Globes awards for his acting in this film.
While he is an outstanding actor, can he direct? For me the answer is a resounding yes. At no point did you feel that it was about style over substance, he just let the importance of the story guide the way. He developed the characters beautifully and shot the landscape with such sensitivity that it too seemed to acquire a life of its own. Above all, he brought an authenticity to the film that is often missing from Hollywood productions about Africa.
To the film itself: Trywell and his brother John work the fields together in their remote village in the landlocked country of Malawi, until one day the older of the two brothers passes away and instead of leaving his land to his sibling, bequeaths it to his son.
This is just the start of an unfortunate chain of events that leads Trywell and his family into financial difficulties.
During these events, his son William, who has a natural knack for engineering – mending radios and raiding junkyards for salvageable bits – starts secondary school, something he is so excited and proud of. Unfortunately his father has other priorities for spending the family’s money so William is soon obliged to drop out.
But his curiosity about what things work leads him to discover how the dynamo on his teacher’s bike makes the light shine. He also discovers a secret romance between his teacher and his sister and uses this as a lever to be allowed to use the school library surreptitiously, where he buries himself in technical books. This is later to prove life-changing for him and his village.
With an unrelenting drought withering the crops in the fields, the village is starting to starve. The country’s president pays a visit and is greeted with much celebration but when the village chief (Joseph Marcell, who older viewers may recognise as Geoffrey, the butler from Will Smith’s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) decides to speak out honestly to try and help his people, he incurs the wrath of the President’s bodyguards.
Thanks to the aforementioned light and a book in the school library titled Using Energy, William is convinced he can build a wind-generated dynamo to power a pump and bring sufficient underground water to the surface to irrigate the fields. But his hardest job is convincing his “wiser” father that he knows what he is talking about.
The film is told in a combination of English and the Malawian dialect of Chicewan, with English subtitles where appropriate. Director Ejiofor break the film down into several symbolic chapters: Kufesa – sowing; Kukula – growing; Kukulola – harvest; Njala – hunger; and finally Mphepo – wind.
Without doubt, it is young Maxwell Simba in the title role who is the star. He is not the only one taking first steps in front of the camera as many of the other actors also made their acting debuts in the film, including Lily Banda as William’s sister Agnes.
The film works on several levels and in one sense highlights the vast aspirational gaps between an older generation that puts its faith in tradition and hard work, eking out a living from the soil, and the younger generation that sees education and knowledge as the salvation.
It is beautifully shot and acted and despite its strong message, is entertaining and engrossing. It is extraordinary to realise, at the end of the film, that it is based on a true story. One wonders how many such true stories of achievement in the teeth of adversity there are yet to be found in Africa. NA
Ngati mphep yofika konse – God is as the wind, which touches everything