The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. UK-Malawi, 2019. A BBC Films/BFI Film Fund/Blue Sky Films Production Services Malawi/Head Gear Films/Lipsync Post/Metrol Technology/Econet/Participant Media/Cornerstone Films/Potboiler Productions Co-Production, distributed by Netflix. 1 hour 53 minutes. Aspect Ratio 2.35:1. Screenwriter & Director: Chiwetel Ejiofor. Based on a book of the same name by William Kamkwamba, Bryan Mealer. Cinematography: Dick Pope. Costume Design: Bia Salgado. Production Design: Tulé Peake. Music: Antonio Pinto.
CAST: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Trywell Kamkwamba), Maxwell Simba (William Kamkwamba), Alïssa Maïga (Agenes Kamkwamba), Lily Banda (Annie Kamkwamba), Lemogant Tsipa (Mike), Joseph Marcell (Chief Wimbe), Phibert Falakeza (Gilbert), Robert Agengo (Jeremiah).
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a directorial debut and labor of love for the Nigerian (Igbo tribe)-British star Chiwetel Ejiofor, who had worked with such luminaries as Stephen Spielberg, Woody Allen, and Alfonso Cuaron, among others, and nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave (2013). Oh right, he plays Baron Mordo in Dr. Strange, too. For his debut project, Ejiofor was probably thinking like a theater director who happens to be a movie star, locking on to the kind of universally inspiring human-interest story that, nonetheless, has some substantive dramatic conflicts at its core, all the while depicting a section of Africa that has hitherto had little chance to be seen throughout the world in an accessible popular cultural form.
I will come back to this issue of dramatization vs. real life shortly, but Ejiofor's first right step was to create an entirely believable look for the film, miles apart from either the exoticized glamour of "nature documentaries," or the aesthetized grunginess of a high-end Hollywood production, usually cluttered with hundreds of extras and colorful details framing perfectly made-up and coiffed stars. Although the substantial part of the dialogue is in English (the rest of the conversation is conducted in Chichewa, one of the languages spoken in Malawi, which Ejiofor, Alïssa Maïga, a Senegalese-Malian-French, and some other cast members had to learn afresh), Ejiofor seeks to maintain a careful balance between a believable ethnographic representation and an involving fictional narrative, both of which come with certain expectations and conventions.
Divided into five chapters, four of them titled after an agricultural cycle, Sowing (Kufesa), Growing (Kukula), Harvest (Kukolola), Hunger (Njala), and the climactic chapter named Wind (Mphepo), The Boy starts off with a surrealistic and foreboding vision of masked dancers called Gule Wamkulu, covered in colorful rags, some walking on stilts. They are professional mourners who visit the sites of death, but for young William a source of mystery and fear. The veteran British cinematographer Dick Pope (The Illusionist , Mr. Turner ) utilizes the scope width of his canvas to capture not only the aridity and vastness of planes but also the vibrancy and warmth of Malawian communities. As the family members of William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba, a Kenyan young actor, admirably restrained in what amounts to be his first professional performance) are introduced to the viewers, Ejiofor also unhurriedly unfurls his layered narratives, which not only involves William's effort to educate himself in the basics of engineering at a school where he has to sneak into its library, due to his inability to pay tuition, but also his father Trywell's (Ejiofor) resistance to being exploited by the government and farming corporations (specifically tobacco companies), making him a valuable ally to the justice-seeking Chief of Wimbe (Joseph Marcell, from the '80 sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). A harrowing middle section shows Kamkwamba's family, with the mother Agnes (graceful yet sturdy Maïga) and daughter Annie (Lily Banda, a Malawian actress) left by themselves to face thieves and potential rapists coming after their painfully harvested grains (barely enough for the family's survival for the fallow season as they are), while William and Trywell run around desperately to purchase food from the government stations.
Ultimately, however, Ejiofor refuses to frame this film as a story of heroic patriarchal struggle. His acting prowess at full throttle, Ejiofor instead lays bare all the contradictory aspects of Trywell's personality, including his failure as a father-protector, his stubborn will unmistakably tinted by a measure of self-righteousness. He structures the narrative in such a way that William's construction of the wind-powered electronic generator is not merely a personal triumph for him, but serves as a representation of-- at the same time a clarion call for-- a new generation of Africans to respectfully learn from but also surmount their fathers, with their dependable authority but close-mindedness toward new types of solutions.
The harrowing episodes showing the consequences of a poor harvest, with their graphic yet non-exploitative depictions of despair, rage and resilience, are certainly powerful, greatly aided by, again, restrained and finely honed performances from the principals. Nonetheless, I do believe that there are some grounds for questioning Ejiofor's choice to tie William's invention to revitalization of a water pump, thus making his windmill power-generator essential for the survival of his community. Would William's achievement have been considered less "moving" by the viewers, had it not been responsible for alleviating the hunger of his village? Maybe. However, we can defend Ejiofor's narrative stratagem, too, for allowing the viewers to access the greater truths distilled out of the compressed or modified facts. Kamkwamba's windmill generators did contribute to increasing agricultural output, after all, just not so dramatically as the film version's events would indicate. And William and his family did experience a famine, one of the main reasons that he could not pay tuition to his school.
Make no mistake, The Boy is somber and earnest. Yet, neither is it a lugubrious production reeking of self-importance. The filmmakers do not forget to show us simple pleasures of life threaded by casual, affectionate conversations, with strikingly authentic locations (mostly filmed in Malawi, near the real-life lived environments of the characters) showing a junkyard full of the detritus of the mechanical civilization, a schoolyard gathering with students dressed in primary colored uniforms, instantly swallowed up by an explosive shower of rain, and other vistas that bring forth complex affective responses in the viewers, no matter what their cultural backgrounds are (For me, it is difficult not to be reminded of my glimpses of the '70s and even '80s Korean countryside). Production designer Tulé Peake and Costume designer Bia Salgado, the Brazilians who had worked on City of God (2002), do a great job of mixing natural and man-made environments, neither over-selling hardship and harshness nor prettifying the simple accoutrements of rural Southeastern African lives. Antonio Pinto (The Host , Self/Less ), another Brazilian, provides a light-on-the-feet, non-pushy yet suitably emotional score.
Ejiofor, a superb and committed actor, probably tries a bit too hard with his own portrayal of the Kamkwamba paterfamilias, set up to be the story's final obstacle that William needs to overcome (one of the core themes of Black Panther --yes, that Marvel superhero movie-- as well), but it is difficult to question his sincerity and, in the end, directorial acumen in putting this project together. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind may be an unassuming little film, but it succeeds in reminding us that these seemingly "small" endeavors, such as the construction of William Kamkwamba's first jerry-rigged generator, partially from a wheel and sawed-off chassis of an old bicycle, are ultimately the ones that will change the world for the better.