Review: THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND

Netflix brings us a familiar tale from another place and time.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut is a fine profile of a tiny village in one of those countries that President Trump might have dismissed with an awful swear. Stories like the one told here demonstrate that we are all the same regardless where we live or how we appear.

Young William Kambwamba (Maxwell Simba) hails from a long line of farmers. Growing up in Malawi, William has spent much of his short life tending to the fields with his father, mother, and sister. At night, he tinkers with radios and figures out not only how to repair them, but how to eke out the last bits of battery life from thought to be spent cells. He’s got a knack for looking at a situation and figuring it out, by always taking a pause before proceeding. The fix is there, it just takes time.

Maxwell Simba plays the real life William Kambwamba.

When his grandfather dies, and the family land is left to one of William’s father’s brothers, trees are sold for a short term return. The politics of the nation is changing, democracy has been manipulated and a strong man is rising. William’s father, Trywell (played by writer/director Ejiofor), opposes the sale of the trees. His fear is that by removing the trees, the ground will erode.

Following hard rains, erosion does occur. And when a drought hits, William’s family may not be able to grow a sufficient amount of grain to sell at market let alone feed their family. But William has an idea…

Unlike other family films that fantastically introduce the concept of a child genius that saves his community, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” takes its time developing the characters and making us feel the family’s pain. Like that line of films in the 1980s about the American family farmer crisis (see 1984’s “Country,” for example), we see similar events transpiring in another place. Regardless whether the people and the land is on another continent, the attitudes are all the same.

Director Ejiofor plays William’s father.

“Wind” takes place in the early 2000s, where little changes have big repercussions. And to his credit, Ejiofor, who adapts a book co-written by the real William Kamkwamba, doesn’t glam up the facts, although license is certainly taken in order to propel the narrative over its feature film running time.

While Ejiofor’s detailed approach is languid at times, it is never-the-less fascinating and insightful. I felt that we were getting an authentic view of the place and the people. The dialogue is in several languages including English, prompting one character to express concern that when she leaves her town for another, she may not be able to speak the native dialect. It’s little details like that one that give us unique understanding. Like last year’s “Five Fingers for Marseilles,” 2005’s Oscar winner “Tsotsi,” or 2004’s gut-wrenching, perfect film “Moolaadé,” there are stories in Africa that should be explored. Thankfully, Netflix sees merit in bringing them to us.

The Kambwamba family express concern during a political rally.

While watching “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” I was struck by images of the modern and the past. In one scene, a group of strangely adorned people join a Christian funeral. These people wear masks and some stride upon tall stilts. What might appear threatening elicits warm smiles from those at the funeral. This is their way of life, the old and the new traditions co-existing and complementing one another. And this alone points up the value in telling their stories, because there’s no such thing as a “shit-hole” country, just people, who are very much like us.

Note: For another perspective on modern Africa, check out the documentary “Blame Game” available online.https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8914922/?ref_=nv_sr_2

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