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William and the Windmill
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by Jay Seaver

"The boy who harnessed the wind and other opportunities."
4 stars

"William and the Windmill" does not so much tell the tale of a boy who builds a windmill to generate electricity for his poor village as one who has built such a windmill. After all, that's the sort of story which is over by the time a filmmaker can hear about it and get to Africa to shoot. Still, The question of what comes next can be an interesting one, even if it's not quite so obviously dramatic.

William Kamkwamba did build a wind turbine out of spare parts, scrap, and whatever else he could find at the age of fourteen; he figured out how from an English-language book in the village's library despite not yet knowing the language (a drought had left his farming family too poor to continue his formal education). The story spread, leading William to a TED event in a neighboring country, where he met an American patron, Tom Rielly, and was given a chance to attend the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, even though by then he was a bit older than the other students. A book is written (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind), and other opportunities present themselves, along with other pressures.

William is such a soft-spoken guy, especially when he initially seems uncomfortable with English, that it's very easy to imagine him being exploited; there are people around him who talk a lot and make plans while he nods his head and agrees or mostly listens. It's certainly a sharp contrast to Tom, who states early on that Africa and Africans have often had trouble with white dilettantes who either lose interest in their projects or are chiefly interested in reflected glory. And for all that self-awareness, Tom certainly does frequently seem like one of those guys. Director Ben Nabors, thankfully, decides to let this dynamic play out on-screen even though it's not the story he's trying to tell; it's a reminder of how hard it can be to see the line between sincerity and self-interest on one side or naivete and shyness on the other.

The moments when William is on his own or unguarded are kind of great, though. Without spending a lot of time in interviews intended to establish his self-image or cutting to a handy emotional outburst, Nabors gives the audience a sense of William as a young man with the ambition to take opportunities that come his way but the genuine modesty to recognize the limits of what he can do in the present time. I love the bit where he's flirting with one of the girls at ALA but also making a real effort to learn the French words she's teaching him - it's a rare interaction with his peers that lets him be himself, a confident-yet-curious teenager.

In some ways, the moments back in his home village of Wimbe in Malawi are some of the most interesting. As much as the other segments are often more active and eventful, there's a simmering tension there - a friend mentions that William has become popular enough that he could probably be elected to Parliament, while a current politician makes sure to associate himself with the school William's fame has brought. Folks expect great things from William, and yet... Well, watch his parents Trywell and Agnes; there often seems to be as much incomprehension at his rise as there is pride. Another relative uses pages from a textbook to roll cigarettes. None of these scenes condemn these people, but they do make the dual points of the film quite clearly: Achievement is hard, especially in an environment of well-earned cynicism, so those like William who make a chance to rise above humble beginnings are genuinely special - but the expectations that come with it are a heck of a thing to shoulder.

Watching the film, William Kamkwamba seems to have a better chance than many - he's got both knowledge of and confidence in his capabilities. Someday, there may be other movies about what he did as a kid and what he will do as a man (there's actually a thread in this one about Chiwetel Elijofor optioning his book), but in the meantime, this one does a nice job of capturing the in-between time, when he's still figuring out the power of his potential.

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originally posted: 06/06/13 09:46:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Nantucket Film Festival For more in the 2013 Nantucket Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival For more in the 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/11/13 Louis Blyskal Good movie 4 stars
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