“I can bring water,” a 13-year-old boy reassures his father. The year is 2001 and at Malawi, the rugged country in southeastern Africa, the natives are facing a major drought. The claim by William Kamkwamba (played by a wonderful Maxwell Simba) sounds like a ruse his uneducated father Trywell Kamkwamba (Chiwetel Ejiofor) can barely fathom. What follows is the father’s searing rage at having been talked down by his son. Moments later, his son does bring water.
The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is a tale of a curious if not a prodigious boy who, while tinkering with broken radios, discovers his ability to “harness the wind”. Growing up in the landlocked country in Africa, rain and drought become the only season he witnesses. He sees more deaths than he would want to, silently watches his family struggle to make ends meet, gets expelled from school owing to his inability to pay the fees and uses the junk found at the junkyard as his toys and later as the tool to build the turbine.
The title of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut, inspired by a true story, gives away the plot. It is a familiar topography – a rousing tale where the problem at hand will require the effort and resolve of an individual and the deafening clamour at the end will serve as a cue of his or his triumph and the curtain call.
In its running time of nearly two hours, Ejiofor’s film not only follows the map of such a topography with dogged obstinance but goes down a familiar path too. The direction is painfully predictable, and the things mentioned are hardly developed.
A film such as this — which is as much about the journey of an individual and his awareness of his capabilities as it is about interpersonal bonds — when stripped of its ancillaries, rides on its socio-economic and racial politics. But in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s film, perhaps out of convenience or indolence or maybe both, the politics comes across as rehashed and orchestrated. It acquires a jaded quality that bolsters, dictates and eventually becomes the plot. Consequently, most relationships in the film lack an emotional depth save for the one shared by the father and the son. Their interactions remain the most memorable bits of the film. But they come too late and are too few.
This is pitiful because the film is based on a true story, and an extraordinary one at that. Kamkwamba indeed had made a turbine, “a simple machine” as he refers to in his TED Talks in 2009, and it had changed his life, and consequently of others too. This is a story of grit and courage. There is such ingenuity to it that it deserves an equally compelling film. Ejiofor’s film, sadly, is not that.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is currently streaming on Netflix.