Chiwitel Ejiofor makes an impressively assured directing debut on this stirring Malawi-set tale based on a real-life story.
Chiwitel also stars as the titular boy’s father, Trywell Kamkwamba, a farmer committed to his village and to furthering his childrens’ education, if he can pay the fees. When the harvest fails – due to floods – drought hits the village of Wimbe while corrupt local government takes advantage.
However, young William Kamkwamba, a keen fixer of radios, has had an idea. Although expelled because his Dad can’t pay the fees, he sneaks into the library and discovers a book about Using Energy and, inspired by the dynamo light on a teacher’s bicycle, he conceives of a windmill turbine to irrigate the land.
William is laughed out of town by his fellow youths and even spurned by his desperate father, yet the boy perseveres, proving his prowess with electrics and – naturally – mending a radio battery in time for everyone to listen to a football match.
That’s the bones of the story, but Ejiofor packs so much in (perhaps too much?). With his admirable seriousness, the film encompasses all the problems of Africa, from environment to politics, education and tribal tradition, science coming up against folklore and superstition. it’s hard to believe this is set in 2001.
Ejiofor is conflicted and angry yet always noble as Trywell while Maxwell Simba is very touching as William, upon whose memoir the film is based – his delight at getting his school uniform is infectious.
I’d have liked to have seen more of Senegalese actress Aissa Maiga as the mother and of Noma Dumezweni as the school librarian, both memorable in their too-short bursts.
Now on Netflix for the world to see, I hope the film finds its audience. It might not be ‘fairy-tale’ enough for kids, but it should capture heart. The cinematography by Dick Pope is wonderful and I was struck by the work of Brazilian composer Antonio Pinto (City of God, Senna) on the score – both excellent, unusual choices by Ejiofor the director who harnessed his skill, intelligence and duty to make a little African classic.