2019 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: In the current era of actors moving behind the camera, some are more ready than others. Chiwetel Ejiofor makes his own directorial debut with “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” and proves he is ready for the challenge.
Ejiofor was inspired to write and direct the film back in 2009 when he first read the book. The journey from page to screen has taken ten years, and it pays off in compelling ways.
In 2001, William Kamkwamba was a teenager from a small village in Malawi. The landlocked nation on the eastern side of Africa faced major upheaval at the time, as the government tried to force democracy on many peaceful tribal villages. Political conflicts and rising industrialization led to food shortages, which in turn led to desperation, crime, and widespread health crises.
Young William saw an opportunity to help his family and his village by building a windmill and helping modernize their farming. If the local farmers had the ability to irrigate their crops outside of monsoon season, they could plant twice a year and avoid famine. But this idea met with resistance and the chief, the elders, and William’s own father opposed it.
In addition to writing and directing, the Academy Award-nominated Ejiofor also stars as Trywell, William’s stern but loving father. Trywell is a good man who, like any good father, sacrifices and works hard for his family. He is stubborn and sometimes resistant to change, but he wants what is best. This puts him in the situation of having to make difficult choices sometimes, particularly as civil unrest spreads. Ejiofor has the right kind of heart for the role. He displays Trywell’s compassion and determination. It is reminiscent of his work in “12 Years a Slave,” but not the same.
Newcomer Maxwell Simba plays William with passion and dignity. It is another in a line of strong debuts from young actors. He exemplifies William’s unwavering faith in change and in people. Aïssa Maïga and Lily Banda also give good performances as Trywell’s wife and daughter. Both women face their own challenges through the course of the film. Though not as fully realized characters as the men central to the story, both have the chance to express their concerns, hopes, fears, needs.
As a film, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is epic in scope, but sometimes plays things a little safe. Apart from some truly magnificent cinematography from Dick Pope, the filmmaking doesn’t do much to break new ground. But what makes it a rewarding experience is the journey of the characters and a script that shows the far reaches of industrialization and global terrorism.
Another of the strong points at work is the way Ejiofor subtly mentions events like 9/11, not just to establish setting, but to demonstrate how that tragedy affected people in far off places. Without a heavy hand, he draws cause and effect, reminding us that our wars differences are about much more than just ourselves and our own interests. That the film takes place in the aftermath of 9/11, in a village where Christians and Muslims peacefully work and live together, drives home the hope that the world could one day have such peace.
This is a story about faith and hope. It inspires and teaches. If this is what Chiwetel Ejiofor can do with his first film, it will be exciting to see where he goes with his next.
“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is produced by Netflix and will be released globally on March 1.