The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a moving film that premiered at Sundance Film Festival is out on Netflix today. The story of how a teenaged boy in 2001 builds a wind turbine to save his village from starving in Malawi, Africa, is based on the book and true-life story of William Kamkwamba. In his directorial debut, Chiwetel Ejiofor adapts Kamkwamba’s story into a powerful screenplay that is executed with a nuanced authenticity that has the audience emotionally invested for just under two hours.
Not only is Ejiofor behind the camera, but the Twelve Years a Slave starplays William’s father, Trywell, in a captivating performance that embodies the limits of passion that can be endured in trying to provide for one’s family. Alongside Ejiofor is Alïssa Maïga as William’s mother Agnes, and Lily Banda as his sister Annie whose dynamic will make you cry (seriously) and whose presence enriches and helps drive the story in meaningful ways. In the role of the titular character of William Kamkwamba is Maxwell Simba, who does a great job at expressing the constant pursuit of knowledge through his thoughtful gaze and naturally inquisitive interaction with the surrounding world.
We see in the beginning of the film how important education is for the family and how proud they are to be sending William off on his studies. The family is convinced that after the harvest, they will pay the rest of the schooling fees, however this would not be for a long time due to adverse growing conditions. Like many other children in his community, William is forced to leave school due to his family’s inability to pay the fees. Even though he is banned from officially attending class, he is determined to continue learning by sneaking off to the school’s library every day. Taking a particular interest in environmental science, William is fascinated by the conduction of electricity. Inspired by a pedal powered light on a teacher’s bicycle, he reads books on power generation eventually gaining the ability to harness the wind to power a small radio and eventually an irrigation system.
Because of a series of unfortunate events, Malawi is faced with a famine with no foreseeable end. What starts as a period of agricultural difficulty leads to extreme infertility due to a drought that leaves the lives of many in peril. Environmental factors compounded with governmental unwillingness to address the problem – through their active denial of an agricultural crisis, and their inadequate response to the voices of concern – leaves desperation as the last remaining variable in a world of certain death.
Ejiofor displays a breakdown of social and economic order that creates an all too real atmosphere of hunger and despair. The resulting circumstances leave the Kamkwambas, like many other families, to ration their last storages of grain with no sign of regrowth anytime soon. The issue of sending their children to school is quickly overshadowed by the need for survival.
Ejiofor does a fantastic job at focusing on the determination of the Kamkwambas in overcoming their circumstances. Where others may have presented the family members as stagnant in their hopelessness, never are they victimized in such a way. Each member of the family is determined in their own way to improve their situation. This is another wonderful aspect to the film. The men of the film do not outshine the women. They all have their own equally weighted motivations which creates gender parity and makes for more interesting storytelling. Whether it is Trywell’s unwavering determination in physically plowing the dry barren land, symbolically digging his own grave, or it is Agnes’s constant advocating for her children’s’ capabilities and her relentless dedication to keeping her family together, Ejiofor’s film gives every character equal importance.
The chemistry between each character creates a realistic family dynamic which gives the film life. The composition of the scenery is also what I would have expected Malawi to look like. I found myself always taking note of the beauty of every scene. There are many picturesque shots which enhanced the overall viewing experience. I do not know if I would go so far as to say it is Kurosawa-like in this way, but it is a pleasurable viewing nonetheless. Although the story is not very twisty-turny, seeing how the resolution to the conflict is in the title, there are nice elements along the way, that are not mentioned in this spoiler-ridden review. Overall it is an enjoyable movie about perseverance and the power of education that shows Netflix is moving in the right direction in their project selection process.
My Rating: 8/10