The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind
It is fair to say that I would probably watch Chewital Ejiofor act out the phone book. He’s one of the best living actors, being involved in numerous productions – be it Serenity, be it 12 Years A Slave, be it Doctor Strange – where he has routinely given performances that exemplify the very best of the craft. It is natural, perhaps even inevitable, that those who exhibit such startling skill will turn towards the other side of the camera, to the realms of writing and direction, and so Ejiofor has done here. While he’s done more than enough to justify plenty of opportunity and patience, there is still the concern of an actor running into his very own Peter Principal.
But apart from all of that, the premise still intrigued me here. A piece of honest-to-goodness African cinema, depicting one of the more extraordinary stories to come out of the heart of that continent in recent years, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind would probably not have gotten terribly far as an indie release, but has found a fair bit of new life after being picked up by Netflix. Fair to say that plenty of those have sunk rather than swim, but this film has all of the right ingredients, namely its lead, writer and director, to buck that turned.
Rural Malawi, 2001: intelligent young William (Maxwell Simba) goes off for his first day of school, while his father, farmer Trywell (Ejiofor), attempts to make the best life for himself and his family in often trying times. When a major drought hits the area, crop failure inevitably follows: with the family facing starvation, William finds himself in an unexpected position to offer salvation.
The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is very much a look into what seems at times to be an alternate universe. It is in the little things – how a young boy is overjoyed at the prospect of going to school, the incredible value of a ramshackle bike, the tribal structure of communities – and the in the big things – the eerie threat and then harsh reality of famine, the intense corruption of politicians and the sheer sense of isolation. Ejiofar wants us, clearly, to understand Malawi as much as possible, before we get into the meat and bones of things. News from a radio in one scene announces the 9/11 attacks, and no one pays it any attention, as it might as well be happening on Neptune. Later, an entire community tears itself apart when the harvest fails, to the point of robbery, riots and death threats. The environment of the story is already entrancing enough for a “western” audience, but then Ejiofor manages to tell a pretty damn good story on top of that as well.
It’s an ode to two things really, the first being the pursuit of education. The lack of proper schooling in your background is presented as the real Achilles heel of this part of the world. If you don’t have it you get stuck squabbling over tiny plots of land and struggling to grow enough maize to subsist on, while if you are a woman your lot in life is to be a wife and mother, and little else besides (the film’s approach to women’s issues is interesting, if not the main focus, and deserves some praise). Getting an education is synonymous with getting out of this pattern, with characters equating a term in school or university to simply getting out of a dead-end town where your prospects are nil. “Go to school” is the film’s final major thesis statement, and it backs up its importance. This explains William’s delight in getting to go to school and Trywell’s delight in being able to send him, even if, due to the later famine, the experience turns to rancour and resentment.
The Boy Who Who Harnessed The Wind is, like The Martian, is a problem-solving movie, that showcases how even a rudimentary scientific education can be invaluable in such trying circumstances. This is a world where the idea of wind-generated electricity is a novelty: a person who can create that energy, using basic knowledge of dynamos and magnets, is powerful indeed. That person is William, with Simba giving an excellent performance as an inquisitive young boy on the cusp of manhood, playing off excellently with the much more accomplished Ejiofor. Simba captures that critical sense of teenage awkwardness and slow rise to rebellion, while Ejiofar’s Trywell is a multi-faceted character, capable of being both a proud supportive father and stern tyrant whenever the moment calls for either. Both, and the rest of the cast, are adept at showcasing the physical and mental consequences of hunger later on, as desperation becomes the order of the day.
But the film is also an ode to the working man, to the farmer, to the patriarch trying to get him and his family by. In other words, it is an examination of manhood and what that means in a changing context. Trywell wants to be a traditional pater familias, keeping his family going by the work of his hands, by sheer hard graft and by heaps of honesty and idealism, even when such things result in disaster. He remains pathetically devoted to the idea that national politics can save him, even when it becomes clear such an avenue is a dead end. William, coming into that maturing time of his life, discovers that he can come to know things and achieve things that others can’t and the clash between father and son, tradition and modernity, inevitable as the tides, becomes unavoidable. Such conflict is at the heart of The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, showing that a very familiar plot can be replicated in very alien circumstances (if you are viewing the film through western eyes). It is said that the saddest moment of a boy’s life is when he defeats his father for the first time, and The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is an example of how such a state can exist through multiple cultures and nationalities.
There is still a sense of mission creep from the production, which may be the most obvious sign that the director is on his feature debut. It’s quite lengthy, more than it really needs to be, and the promise of the premise, indeed the very events promised by the film’s title, do not actually kick into gear until its final half-hour or so. By this time we’ve already moved through a range of plot and sub-plot: the succession issues of the local tribe, the ecological ramifications of removing natural flood barriers, Trywell’s sometimes testy relationship with his wife and extended family, William’s sister and her secret relationship with the local schoolteacher, etc, etc. While I appreciate that Ejiofor wants to do more than just the “standing ovation” biopic, not all of it is strictly necessary I feel, and while there are few characters in The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind who could be described as shallow, the end result is that the film sometimes feels a bit ungainly, an adaptation that wasn’t sure what to cut out and what to leave in.
Otherwise I cannot fault Ejiofor too much as a creator of visual story-telling. He’s apparently been planning this project as far back as 2013 when he was a little busy elsewhere, and it shows. This might be his feature debut, but you wouldn’t really know if not informed beforehand. The landscape of rural Malawi is brought to the screen vividly, from the bustling streets of the local town, the scrubland where the trees stand out in glaring fashion, or the dust bowl-esque desert that makes up much of the second half of the production. Blazing light is everywhere, though night-time scenes, quieter, more intimate, are also undertaken with skill. Ejiofor, with cinematographer Dick Pope, has an eye for depicting vastness in background without ever feeling the need to make it the real subject of his shots, if that makes any sense; in other words, Malawi is shown as the perfect set-dressing, but never, Lawrence Of Arabia-like, as the star of the show actually taking attention away from the principals.
There are awkward scenes to shoot, and Ejiofor rises to the occasion, sometimes lingering just a tad longer than strictly necessary, a shade of Steve McQueen. Memorable sequences include William’s first day at school, interrupted by a thunderous rain shower, where the smartly dressed students and staff are made to look even more out of kilter with the surrounds than before; the starving locals losing all sense of civility and running rampant, to the point that the family’s women are briefly looking at the possibility of robbery and rape; the family quietly discussing which of its daily meals they will retain as food supplies dwindle, recurring moments between William and his dog, which becomes a symbol of the hardship the family is suffering; and the family confronting the grim reality of what famine means, and how such a social unit can stay together. Ejiofor’s work on the script, adapted from William Kamkwamba’s book, and his direction of people, does the rest perhaps most potently in a scene where Aissa Maiga, playing the family matriarch Agnes, tells her errant older child Annie (Lily Banda) “When I cut off my own arm to feed you, then you will know you are my daughter”.
It’s been a little while since The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind came out at Netflix, and I admit some regret that I left it until now to give it a look. Even with the wider possibilities granted by a Netflix release, it appears to have still flown mostly under the radar. And that is a shame, because it really is quite good, better than a film from a debut director, also writing and appearing in a lead role, has any right to be. It brings an already fascinating true story to life, and gives a range of adult and child actors a wonderful avenue to demonstrate their craft. It looks great, and is written well. Set in a time and place so different from our own, it serves as an excellent ode to Malawian culture, the quest for education and in the changing nature of masculine leadership in times of crises. Ejiofor has succeeded beyond expectations, and I eagerly look forward to his next directorial effort. On the basis of this, I am sure it will be something worth seeing. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).