Our in-house critic, Wilfred Okiche, was invited to the 2019 Berlinale Film Festival as part of its Berlinale Talents programme and is sending dispatches from the front lines of global film, enjoy.
In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the stirring directorial debut by British-Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, an interesting moment arrives in the final quarter, when the hero, William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Chimba) learns to stand up to his father, the human representation of an all-present figure of authority in his life.
The farming dependent Malawian village of Wimbe in which William was born and raised is suffering through a heavy famine period occasioned by climatic change circa 2001. William believes he has a crude scientific solution to the problem. He just needs total cooperation from his unyielding father Trywell, played with a sneaking propensity to overact by Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Young William looks his dad in the eye and tells him that because of his formal education, there are things he knows which the older man doesn’t. It is at that moment that the dynamic in their relationship shifts and Trywell, an impoverished farmer hanging on to crude, ancient ideas begins to see that perhaps it is time to let the old ways die.
This complex and constantly evolving relationship between fathers and sons is a strong thematic concern of the Netflix backed The Boy who Harnessed the Wind, the astonishing real-life story of William Kamkwamba, the teenager who through a combination of curiosity and ingenuity was able to solve an acute-on-chronic problem.
Ejiofor adapts the story from Kamkwamba’s 2009 autobiography of the same title- written together with Bryan Mealer- and tells a pretty conventional, but no less rousing story that celebrates the capacity of the human spirit to triumph against the odds.
Produced by Andrea Calderwood and Gail Egan, who worked with Ejiofor on the forgettable Half of a Yellow Sun, another adaptation set in Africa, The Boy who Harnessed the Wind is a surprisingly confident debut by Ejiofor, one that places a young boy at the center, but does not fall into the overly sentimental trap that usually lies in wait for filmmakers telling these kinds of stories.
Ejiofor’s direction manages to rise above this treacly drenched safety zone, opening up to accommodate darker themes such as the Malawi government’s role in the food crisis of the early 2000s and the valid connection between desperation and crime. The Boy who Harnessed the Wind on a deeper level considers the age long tensions of conservatism versus the modern as well as hot button issues of environmental sustainability.
The cast is led by newcomer Chimba, who emerges as an engaging wide- eyed presence, able to capture both his character’s innocence and increasing awareness of his place in the world. The film was shot in the same village as the real-life events, with characters switching from English to the local Chichewa dialect.
Dick Pope’s sweeping, glossy cinematography comprising wide open takes of dusty earth and clear skies adds layers of authenticity to the material. The desolation in Wimbe is conveyed clearly in crisp images of barren lands and fallen trees but not at a level that fetishizes or needlessly glamorizes the plight of the people.
Ejiofor does not exactly flip the script in terms of how these stories are told but if The Boy who Harnessed the Wind has anything distinct going for it, it is the layers of earnestness and poignancy that both cast and crew infuse into the story, bringing it to an emotionally resonant conclusion. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a winner and Ejiofor appears to have a bright future behind the scenes.
A revised edition of this post first appeared on the Berlinale Talent Press website
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.