Sundance 2019: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

By Matthew Buxton

William (Maxwell Simba) is a 13-year-old boy who comes from rural Malawi, a country in southern Africa that is unrecognized by many. In his village, Wimbe, food is scarce and resources are very limited. The tribe relies entirely on the harvest that is made each year during the rainy season (Winter) for both subsistence and selling. However, the rains came late this year and the political turmoil in Malawi has resulted in a failed harvest and no government supplies to aid the famine. William, whose family doesn’t have the money to pay for schooling, has snuck his way into the school library to continue his studies on his own. With thousands dying of starvation or fleeing the village without any certainty of survival, William against all odds devises a plan with the knowledge he’s taught himself to save the people and place he loves.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, was released at the Sundance 2019 film festival and will premiere on Netflix on March 1. It tells the harrowing true story of how William Kamkwamba saved his village from famine by building a windmill in 2001. While in the library, William studied wind energy and physics textbooks from America that were far beyond the grade level he would have been in if enrolled in school. And with nothing but tree trunks, a bicycle, a radio, and a cheap dynamo, he built a windmill that turned wind energy into electricity. With it he was able to pump water from their well onto the extremely dry land and made it possible to grow crops year-round–rainy or dry season.

The film is told in four parts: Sowing, Harvest, Hunger, and Wind. As each piece of the story progresses, Ejiofor is able to convey just how brutal the cycle of life is in Malawi. He is able to express the immense toll that living in Malawi has on William’s family. But from the anxiety in the sowing season that turns into dread during the harvest and ultimately distress in hunger, it is evident that nothing matters more than family. When the last of their food is stolen and William’s dad refuses to eat, or when the older sister runs away because it is one less mouth they would have to feed, it is clear that their love drives them to do anything to help each other. What is so intriguing about the film is how Ejiofor utilizes the weaknesses of the characters to demonstrate how much love they have. There are moments when family members are even violent towards each other to demonstrate how hard times drive people to do things that aren’t necessarily heroic but are purely out of love.  

Although there are times when the story is dry and slow, it seems to reflect just how authentic the film truly is. The reason that The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is such a success is because it does everything in its power to maintain the integrity of the culture it is representing. Having lived in an impoverished region of West Africa for months myself, what drew me into this film was the rawness and the reality of life that was so correctly portrayed. From the tops of the ears of the dogs that are bit off, to the barely noticeable child playing with a motorcycle tire in the background, everything about this film is in the details.

When the emotional climax hit, I was left with tears streaming down my face because of the immense joy I felt, but after I was left with even more tears understanding that this was one story of success out of thousands and thousands of losses. Yes, this film is about the windmill William built, but it is also about those thousands of voices that were never heard. It is a story about people who are never represented, and it is also about those who are still suffering and whose stories still need to be told. It is about the boy who harnessed the wind and was able to fly far into success with it, but the many more who never got the chance to soar. But with a boundary-breaking film like this, maybe they will finally get to.

This article was originally published on February 7, 2019.