Chiwetel Ejiofor and William Kamkwamba on Seizing Global Attention with 'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind' at Sundance

We chat with the director and his subject about using cinema to effect change across the globe.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind
Netflix

There is a moment in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind when the titular young boy (Maxwell Simba) finally gains entry to his school library and access to, at most, a few hundred books. The downward POV shot of this tiny shack of shelves that would fill the space of the average American walk-in closet, crushed this particular viewer. The idea that a dusty copy of “Using Energy” would ultimately result in the rescue of an entire village is a staggering, heartbreaking triumph. I will never take my library card for granted again.

William Kamkwamba is a hero. He recognized the power contained within those pages and refused denial to their contents. While his village in Malawi suffered under a devastating famine caused by the brutal combination of unforgiving weather and the malicious governmental manipulation of grain prices, he educated himself on the potential power of wind turbines. Gathering the knowledge from one book and the leftover mechanical parts of a nearby scrapyard and his father’s bicycle, Kamkwamba constructed a windmill that electrified his home. From there he erected several others and even a solar-powered water pump that supplied drinking water to the entire community. Kamkwamba gave hope to the hopeless, and inspiration to the rest of the world.

His story first gained world recognition when “The Daily Times” wrote an article detailing this astonishing feat of makeshift science, which in turn lead to a must-watch TED Talk and the memoir co-written by Bryan Mealer. That book landed on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s desk shortly after America’s economic collapse in 2008. Suddenly, the actor had a personal narrative that he could use to address his growing global concerns and he was compelled to bring Kamkwamba’s story to the screen.

On the night of the film’s premiere at Sundance, Ejiofor was electric with anticipation. He bounced down the red carpet press line bursting with enthusiasm and eager to get his time with each inquiring reporter. There was no anxiety regarding his feature debut; he made sure to keep Kamkwamba’s brave ingenuity at the forefront of all discussion.

Here was his opportunity to shout at the world, to bend our ears to the terrors that plague so many. “It is a conversation about deforestation, about climate change, and so on,” Ejiofor states emphatically. “It’s about how it impacts people at the pointy end of the stick, and these people in these stressed and sometimes poorer communities around the world who really take the brunt of a lot of these decisions.”

With The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, Ejiofor is determined to put the spotlight on those who climb on the backs of others only to sit pretty on top. The crisis that hit Malawi was as much a manmade violation as it was a punishing natural event. “It was the last fully economic famine. In the sense that people didn’t have food because the price of grain was unregulated. Everything’s going up because the supplies are going down. So these conversations are still in the mix. They’re becoming even more relevant.”

Kamkwamba is equally inspired. He recognizes that his story speaks to a greater, global significance and since he first took center stage at TED he has been grasping for a larger and larger audience. “It’s very exciting for me to get it quickly, my story to the script,” he says. “When I was writing the book with my co-author, Bryan, we wanted to reach as many people as possible and having it on the big screen means that it is going to reach even more people. People who didn’t have a chance to read my book.” The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind will stretch even further beyond the big screen, landing in the homes of 137 million Netflix subscribers. “Their network is very big. They have subscribers all over the world. So, I think it’s very exciting that I’m going to reach as many people as possible.”

But are people ready to listen? Ejiofor has more hope in 2019 than he did a few years ago. “I think things are changing,” he says. “I think that people are engaging more as the levels of the issue get bigger and people know that at some point this is going to be knocking on all of our doors.” We should grab hold of passionate Earthlings like Kamkwamba and celebrate their victories. “Actually, people like William are very, very relevant in London,” Ejiofor continues, “to the people who were making certain decisions and are trying to push things in a certain direction. We should try to listen to William Kamkwamba and understand the choices that he made within the context of them, and understand what is going on in bionomics.”

Kamkwamba agrees wholeheartedly, “I think people are ready to hear my story, to see the challenges I have faced and find perseverance in order to come up with solutions and to solve the problems that we are facing.” His only trepidation was doing justice to the story within a cinematic runtime and making sure his friends and family would accept the adaptation. “The only worry that I had is that a movie can only be like two hours long, but this story took place over two or three years. That’s very difficult, so there were some decisions that had to be made to make sure they are presenting the story correctly and at the same time knowing that they have a limited time to do that.”

Ejiofor has been working to bring this story to movie audiences for nearly a decade. His passion for the material was so strong that he couldn’t imagine anyone else shooting the film. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was a herculean task, from acquiring the financing, the crew, the cast, and the location to appropriately convey the righteous endeavor of a teenager that radically altered his world for the better.

Is the director ready to tackle another project behind the camera? “I think having that time to really live inside of this project was great,” says Ejiofor. “Also, to have something that I just loved so deeply and could spend the best part of a decade going back and forth to – I was traveling back and forth to Malawi and meeting William and his family and really trying to understand and get underneath it – I think that level of excitement and connection to something is really important to me. I was lucky to have that in my film.”

Don’t count a sophomore feature out for Ejiofor, but finding another tale that will capture such an intense level of attention might prove to be a challenge. William Kamkwamba faced one brick wall after the other but managed to either scale them or kick them down to bring life-saving relief to his friends and family. That courageous resolve should shake each and every one of us.


The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind hits Netflix on March 1st.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.