The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a true story of resilience and ingenuity in the face of overwhelming odds. According to its synopsis, the film is based on the bestselling book by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer and follows a 13-year-old boy, William, played by Kenyan newcomer Maxwell Simba, who finds a way to save his village in Malawi from famine. In 2013, this true story was the subject of a documentary, titled William and the Windmill, which was shown at South by Southwest, an annual festival of film, interactive media and music in the United States.
The film deals with William Kamkwamba, a promising Malawian student who is always tinkering with batteries and broken radios. The livelihood of his family and his hometown depends on the annual harvest and has been put at risk by the unreliable weather. To make matters worse, a local tobacco company chooses to capitalise on their misfortune by moving in on the largely uneducated farmers, offering to purchase their land in order to expand the company’s empire. William’s father is too proud to sell, but an impending dry season and no sign of respite means he can no longer afford to pay William’s school fees. The boy sneaks into his school library and attempts to study his way through the problem.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, who acted in 12 Years a Slave, wrote the screenplay and plays William’s father. He also makes his directorial debut on this project. Speaking to Variety about the selection of his film by Netflix, Ejiofor said, “A global story such as this requires a global platform, and I’m thrilled to be working with Netflix on bringing William’s extraordinary tale of determination and inventiveness to audiences worldwide.”
The film will first have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, then appear at the Berlin Film Festival before being released on Netflix on 1 March 2019 and in selected cinemas in the US and UK.
Filming in Malawi
Despite the country’s lack of infrastructure, for Ejiofor it was a natural step to shoot the film in Malawi, where the story took place, as opposed to opting for a location like South Africa. “It just didn’t seem plausible to me… There was no way that we could shoot the film anywhere else. For me, it was really a question of diving in feet first and just seeing what happens,” he said to Variety.
Andrea Calderwood, who produced the film for Potboiler Productions, supported this decision from the beginning and was happy with the outcome. “We shot right next door to the house that William grew up in,” Calderwood told Variety. “That gave it all an incredible authenticity and atmosphere and texture, which you can’t buy.”
Because of the anticipated challenges of filming in Malawi, the film had to have an experienced team behind it. “We had a lot of production experience around us, and that was something that I was very keen to have, because Malawi doesn’t necessarily have the infrastructure,” Calderwood added. The team included production designer Tulé Peak (City of God), longtime Mike Leigh cinematographer Dick Pope (Peterloo, Vera Drake) and editor Valerio Bonelli (Darkest Hour).
The locals also helped the production come to fruition. Ejiofor recalls, “As soon as we got there and established that we were going to make this film there, you just felt the wind at your back.”
Even the weather cooperated with shooting, which wrapped up just as the first rains of the rainy season swept across the country. “The filmmaking gods smiled on us,” the producer added.