The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind opens with a group of men walking through a dry, sun-beaten field picking maize from the browned stalks and throwing them into baskets carried by the young.
The land plays a significant part in the film both as a villain and a saviour, and as the stage upon which countless triumphs and tribulations have manifest in the lives of men and women in Malawi, and beyond.
In this instance, it is the backdrop for an extended moment in the life of William Kamkwamba. A moment that not only changed his life but the lives of the many he has touched since he was all of 14 years old.
Kamkwamba’s story is unique not in his accomplishments but rather in how it has travelled beyond the borders of Malawi, and the African continent, to capture the attention of the world.
For Africans, the narrative has always been one-dimensional and the lack of control over how our stories are told has often meant we continue to be painted with one brush stroke – that of war, disease and poverty.
What we know about William Kamkwamba, a young man from the village of Wimbe, Malawi, is that he built a makeshift windmill to draw out water for irrigation while also bringing electricity to his home and subsequently the village.
A trickle became a stream
An article about him in The Malawi Daily Times was picked up by bloggers and the story eventually reached Emeka Okafor, programme director for TEDGlobal, who invited Kamkwamba to speak at TEDGlobal 2007 in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
Off that presentation, he received scholarships, mentorship and other forms of support that enabled him to go from Wimbe to the world, including the African Bible College Christian Academy in Lilongwe, the African Leadership Academy in South Africa and Dartmouth College in the US.
Kamkwamba later wrote his memoirs, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, with Bryan Mealer, on which the film is based, and what a beautiful film it is to watch.
There was no attempt to “Hollywoodify” the film but rather to tell the story in an authentic and respectful manner. The screenplay was written by Chiwetel Ejiofor. It was also his feature directorial debut and he is a lead in the film as William Kamkwamba’s father Trywell.
He approached every aspect of it with a sensitivity that simply oozes out of each scene. He honours the story in the way that it is shot, reflecting the tempo and mood of the environment with patience, never feeling the need to fill every moment with dialogue when a look will suffice.
And the dialogue is primarily in Chichewa, with subtitles, which most of the main actors had to learn for the film. The script was translated by Malawian artist and author Samson Kambulu, who also has a supporting role in the film.
Old ways meet new ideas
Set in 2001, it takes the viewer through a tragic time in Malawi’s history, when, as a result of torrential flooding followed by drought and little government relief, rural communities were faced with famine. And while the film follows the journey of William as he teaches himself to create the windmill that essentially saves his village from starvation, we also get a glimpse into the challenges that face us as Africans finding a balance between the traditional and the modern.
It is a story about the relationship between father and son, between husband and wife, between mother and daughter, between citizens and their rulers.
And, while Eliofor is the well-known, accomplished actor, young Kenyan actor Maxwell Simba more than holds his own as William Kamkwamba. And both Aissa Maiga and Lily Banda must get special mentions for their performances as Agnes, William’s mother, and Annie, William’s sister, respectively.
Overall, an inspirational story that demonstrates that Africans are more than the stereotypes that are often perpetuated in film.