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'The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind': Chiwetel Ejiofor on directing 'Malawi's first big film'

The Oscar-nominated actor-turned-director on telling the story of one of the African nation's most innovative, and perhaps youngest, heroes

Chiwetel Ejiofor attends a preview screening of 'The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind' in London, England, on February 13, 2019. Getty Images 
Chiwetel Ejiofor attends a preview screening of 'The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind' in London, England, on February 13, 2019. Getty Images 

Some debut directors like to gently ease themselves into a first film. A low-key project, perhaps, with few locations or logistical headaches. Chiwetel Ejiofor isn’t one of them.

The British-Nigerian actor, famed for his Oscar-­nominated role in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, is nothing if not ambitious with his first turn behind the camera. Shot in Malawi, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind even features dialogue in the local language of Chichewa. Adapted from the true-life ­account by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, Ejiofor read the book in 2009, when it was first published. Recalling the devastating famine that hit Malawi in 2002, when Kamkwamba was just 14, it’s a story of great innovation mounted against what Ejiofor calls “impossible odds”.

A budding science student, the young Kamkwamba built a windmill from junkyard scrap – including his father’s own bicycle frame – to bring life-­saving electricity to his village.

“I think one of the amazing things, when I started to go to Malawi and spend time with William and his family, [was] just realising the vastness of that struggle,” Ejiofor tells The National. “Just really understanding, when I was there, what he achieved and how difficult that is to do, with the limited resources he had. It’s one of the most extraordinary things a person can achieve – to push that far and that hard and to struggle that deeply in order to support and protect his family and himself and to push for his own future.”

Maxwell Simba, Lily Banda, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aissa Maïga in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Courtesy Netflix 
Maxwell Simba, Lily Banda, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aissa Maïga in 'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind'. Courtesy Netflix

The more he travelled to ­Malawi, the more Ejiofor realised he had to shoot there. While he wisely surrounded himself with experienced pros, like acclaimed cinematographer Dick Pope, making a movie in a country with no real filmmaking infrastructure was a huge challenge.

“There hadn’t been a film of this size in Malawi,” says Ejiofor. Equipment had to be shipped in from Johannesburg in South Africa, via Nairobi in Kenya. Complex scenes, such as the flood that precedes the famine, also had to be navigated.

Yet with so many locals from Malawi on the production, they had witnessed the real events being depicted. “Asking people to recreate their own experience is much easier than trying to explain [it] to a group,” says Ejiofor, who also cast himself as William’s father Trywell, a farmer desperate to keep his crops from withering during the famine.

Maxwell Simba in 'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind'. Courtesy Netflix
Maxwell Simba in 'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind'. Courtesy Netflix

Kamkwamba, who was on set during the shoot, smiles when I ask if he thought Ejiofor caught the essence of his father. “Overall, he did a good job.”

Playing opposite Ejiofor, as the young William, is newcomer Maxwell Simba, who was left wholly impressed by his director/co-star. “He was very professional about everything, whether he was acting or directing … he’s very precise. He knew what he was doing. You couldn’t tell it was his first time directing.” Dedicated and driven, Ejiofor would even get up every morning at 4am to go jogging before the day’s shoot. At night, he would edit and practise Chichewa with the rest of the non-native cast.

For Ejiofor, it was essential that he shot in Malawi and told the story in its language, “just to give a real sense of the deep, rich cultural history of the place”. While some Malawians were critical of the standard of Chichewa spoken in the film, when the first trailer dropped, it brings as much authenticity as the inclusion of the traditional spiritual dances, the Gule Wamkulu, do. “It was something that paid off,” says Ejiofor, “and became the single most important element of the film.”

While Kamkwamba’s wind-powered triumph took place more than 15 years ago the environmental message his story conveys has become even more important since, with the increasing concerns about climate change.

As Ejiofor notes, while the Western world may only just be waking up to the havoc the continued use of fossil fuels has wreaked on our eco-system, “It’s our most vulnerable global communities [like Malawi] that are going to feel the impact of our decisions first.”

More importantly, says Ejiofor, Kamkwamba’s story symbolises our need for collective cooperation. “A global community working together to solve issues is going to have to be the way we move forward with things like this,” says Ejiofor, “as opposed to the ostrich mentality that we have until it comes knocking at our door, which it is going to do. So I think William’s story totally represents part of that cultural shift in terms of how we look at these environmental issues.” Certainly, Kamkwamba has remained an inspirational figure. Since harnessing the wind, he’s now looking to harness the energy of those around him, establishing a series of Innovation Centres in local communities around Malawi.

The notion is simple: just as the young William identified an issue in his village and solved it, the centres encourage youngsters “to come in and work on [solutions]”, as Kamkwamba dubs it, and give them the necessary support.

Meanwhile, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind will also be reaching out, in its own way, with Ejiofor and his producers tying up a deal with Netflix.

Maxwell Simba in 'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind'. Courtesy Netflix 
Maxwell Simba in 'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind'. Courtesy Netflix 

Although the film has already enjoyed a cinematic life, with appearances at Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival, it’s appearance on the streaming platform will bring the movie to over 190 countries. “It was always designed by me to be seen by a lot of people,” says Ejiofor. “I feel like it’s very much a global film and can reach a global audience.”

We will next see – or rather hear – Ejiofor lend his voice to the live-action remake of The Lion King, as the villainous Scar, the character made famous by Jeremy Irons. He’s also set to appear in the sequel to Maleficent, opposite Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer. But it may not be long before he’s back behind the lens. “I definitely would like to,” he says. “I was very spoilt in this experience. It was such a total experience for me … the richest and fullest experience of my life.”

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is streaming on Netflix

Updated: March 2, 2019 04:07 PM

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