I can almost hear Chiwetel Ejiofor smiling through the pain over the phone. In his directorial debut, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the Academy Award winner plays the father of a bright and determined boy named William, whose home country of Malawi is being ravaged by lack of rain and resulting famine. William is inspired to build a windmill to power a pump, which will help to irrigate grain crops year-round. But before he can build his windmill, William must convince his father, Trywell, to sacrifice his bike so that he can use the parts to build his turbine.
As Trywell, Ejiofor’s face is pained with indecision. It’s a torment that only someone who has owned a bike can relate to. At first, he laughs when I ask about his first bike. “That’s a great question. I’m not sure if it was quite my first bike, but I remember having a Ridgeback when I was quite young. It was bright yellow. I was a kid, probably around the same age as William in the story,” he says before sharing an all-too-familiar scenario. “It got stolen, and I remember the crushing pain. I had left it somewhere unlocked and gone away for what must have been 10 or 15 minutes to do something else and come back. I just remember that feeling of staring at the empty space and feeling a bit ridiculous myself. How could I be so stupid. I loved that bike. It’s the first time you realize the crazy unfairness of life.”
The unfairness of life is at the heart of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, based on the book by William Kamkwamba, with Maxwell Simba in the starring role as a real-life Shuri type who maximizes his brain power. A drought in Malawi has had a trickle-down effect on all of the citizens, affecting the local economy, food supplies and even education, as William’s school struggles to remain open, denying access to students who cannot pay to attend. Watching his family and neighbors fight for scraps of grain inspires William to action and his story of technological triumph is captured on screen for the first time. BET spoke with Chiwetel about stepping behind the camera for the first time, what inspired him to tell this story and how the one determined young man can empower his country.
BET: How did you discover the book this film was based upon?
CE: It was actually recommended to me by a friend who was at the book launch party in Los Angeles and spoke to me about it the next day. She just thought it was something that I might be interested in, in taking a look at. She just thought it was a great story. So, I got them to send me the book and it started from there.
What was it about the book that made you want to make it into a film?
I think it was the optimism, the inspirational quality of it. I hadn’t seen this way of looking at a rural community in any African place, but specifically in Malawi. I’d never really experienced these things from the inside, and that’s what was remarkable about William’s journey. As a reader, you could engage with it on his terms and see the world through his eyes. To see things as stark as famine and hunger and these immense challenges, but inside a family dynamic. This was from his position and his point of view.
Then [there are] the wider social, economic, geopolitical and environmental issues that were also in the conversation and mix of that film. All of that felt like a rich tapestry to start working on a screenplay.
When did you first meet William?
I went out to see him in about 2011 after I had written the first draft and working on the second draft. I went to Malawi and met William and his family. He was incredibly generous with me [and] took me around his community [to] all of the places where the events took place. I did some traveling independently with a couple of people to get an understanding of Malawi broadly. It was kind of easy going with a certain sense of humility but a great sense of purpose. I was really struck by that and struck by him. It was in that period that I started to think that the best thing to do would be to try and make the film right there in Malawi, in Wimbe, the Village, and Kasungu, the wider area.
What were the considerations for shooting on location?
It was mainly just a question of the logistics of getting everything in. Getting equipment in. There hadn’t been a film of that size or anywhere near this size in Malawi before. The real truth was those concerns faded in comparison to what the people of Malawi gave us in terms of their commitment to the project, their welcoming nature. [We] were this kind of circus coming to town with all this cast and crew and disruption and they were very supportive. If they hadn’t been it would have been impossible to make the film. [Their presence] was great in terms of background artists, the people who had been through the events of the story. Malawi was this great bonus to us, ultimately.
You learned to speak Chichewa for the film. What was that learning process like?
I was working with Samson Kambalu, who is an artist and writer in his own right. He was born and raised in Malawi and then moved to the U.K. So, he did the translations of the script for me. I was studying the language basics and then moving specifically as I was writing into translating the script and beginning the process of learning the translation to the script. It wasn’t a full broad-based understanding of the language. That’s what I was also engaged in with other members of the cast, those who didn’t speak Chichewa. So, we had Lily Banda, who is Milawian, and we had Philbert Flakeza, who plays Gilbert Wimbe, William’s best friend in the film, who is also Milawian. So, we had a Milawian contingent in the core cast. But then with Aïssa Maïga, who is French Senegalese, myself, and Maxwell, who is playing William, who is from Kenya, we had to knuckle down with those guys as a group with more translators and dialect coaches who helped us to learn the parts of the language that we were engaged with.
Maxwell does a wonderful job as William. How did you find him and why did you think he was right for the part?
We cast a very wide net. Alexa Fogel, who is a terrific casting agent based out of New York, had a lot of contacts on the continent. So, we had people in South Africa and Kenya and created contacts in Malawi. We were in schools meeting as many people as we could. And in that group of people [we found] Maxwell Simba. I saw his audition tape when I was in London, and I was just stunned by him. He had this extraordinarily sophisticated acting style and a way of making really interesting choices that should have belied his lack of experience in acting. Yet he held all of this emotional complexity and intelligence and was able to deliver it with minimalism and simplicity. So, I went over to Kenya to see him in Nairobi and do workshops with him and just start to improvise and see if there were any parameters to what he was doing, and I discovered there weren’t any. He’s an intelligent and interesting actor who can bring to the fore these complicated emotions and dynamics.
This was your directorial debut. Did you pull from any of the directors you’ve worked with in the past?
I’ve been very fortunate to work with so many gifted directors over the years and see ways of approaching scenes, crowds, and all of these elements involved in film making and seeing where that’s been successful. Having been in situations that were broadly similar and feeling what is achievable [provided an] intimate understanding of scene play [and] was really very helpful. It was an important part of me trying to tell this story.
How did you go about recreating William’s windmill prototype?
That was a really interesting process. We redesigned it using William’s original [blueprint] as much as we could. It’s very complicated. It’s a difficult thing to do. We were struggling to get this windmill up and running and had to remind ourselves that a 13-year-old boy with very limited resources, apart from a middle school text book, was able to do this. There was a couple of "Come on guys" to get this windmill up.
That reminds of the scene in Iron Man when the villain, Obadiah Stane, was trying to rebuild Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor, and he was yelling to his team of scientists that “Tony Stark built this in a cave…with scraps!”
Exactly. I had a slight bit of that feeling. But it brought us all into this awareness of the seismic nature of William’s achievement, to construct a wind turbine with absolutely no resources is just incredible.
I thought it was interesting that his father is named Trywell and the well, powered by the windmill, was the one thing he didn’t want to try.
Trywell, he is the person who is full of a kind of effort, he tries. But in terms of the story he needs something else to cross over into this other space where William resides. A more effective energy. There is a sense of wordplay with William in the sense of “Where there’s a will.” We were talking about that when we were writing and rehearsing. There was some wonderful wordplay with their names, but those just [happened to be] the names.
You partnered with Netflix for this film and there is a limited run in theaters. How do you feel about the ongoing discussion about awards consideration for streaming films?
I think the first thing is, it has been amazing working with Netflix and being able to have this film in not just limited cinema release, but also to have the potential to reach so many people around the world. The international response to the film has been amazing. I feel like some of the discussions move in and out of the area of creatives. How long a window should be, when it should be considered for awards and not, [those are] business-end of the industry conversations and what needs to happen is a strong mediator needs to come in so everyone can sit down and hash out a plan. Because there is no doubt that streaming in this form and this new dynamic IS HERE. So, we have to find a way of making it all live together without it being about creatives getting into the ring depending on who they are partnered with on any particular project. Which I don’t think is particularly healthy. I feel like it’s up to the industry to figure out what it needs and hash out a compromise. I think it requires some good old-fashioned diplomacy.
Lastly, can you speak to the timeliness of this film considering the discussions about climate change and the impact it is having globally?
These are very urgent conversations right now. And I think what William did and why William is an important symbol, as well as an important individual, is that he lived a solution to these problems. He identified the problem and a solution and lived within it, and that’s a strong lesson to all of us, not just in places undergoing these challenges, but all of us in the West facing the possibility of this changing climate, our inaction and what that means. I think we all need to start thinking more like William Kamkwamba.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is streaming now on Netflix.
Photo Credit: Ilze Kitshoff / Netflix