A film about Malawian eco boy genius gets an earful back home
The Netflix movie has impressed just about everyone, but Malawians are not happy
A new Malawian film, Netflix’s latest offering to raise the profile of African cinema, has caused a stir back home, facing accusations of mangling the language and relying on foreign actors.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which launched on Netflix last Friday, is based on the true-life story of Malawian child inventor William Kamkwamba, who built a windmill to save his village from drought.
Swiss-based Malawian critic Onjezani Kenani complained that “Malawians were never the target audience of this movie”.
The film, which won the Alfred P Sloan Prize for promoting science at this year’s Sundance Festival, is directed by and stars Oscar-nominated Nigerian-British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in his directorial debut.
The film, set in 2001 and 2002, shows Kamkwamba as a young teenager aged about 13, scrambling around a dump looking for batteries so he can study at night when his family can no longer afford kerosene.
Inspired by his teacher’s bike dynamo and having found a pump at the tip, he sets about building a working windmill to extract water from the ground, using only an outdated book from his school’s library.
It is the latest Netflix original filmed on the African continent, and follows the success of Catching Feelings, a film directed by and starring South African artist Kagiso Lediga.
The platform also announced in December that it had commissioned a series of comedy specials from acclaimed African comics.
But The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind has received mixed reviews in Malawi for hardly using Malawian actors, with critics panning the cast for their poor attempts at speaking Malawi's Chichewa language.
Malawians were never the target
“The Chichewa sounds funny and unrealistic,” Kenani said.
“Malawians were never the target audience of this movie, and so the global audience for which the movie is intended does not care whether or not the Chichewa is mangled,” he said.
But leading Malawian filmmaker Shemu Joyah, who saw the movie at a press screening in Germany, praised the production.
“It is a beautifully executed film with powerful performances by both the main and minor cast,” he said.
“I was very impressed with Lily Banda, who is the only Malawian with a main role. [She] puts up a resolute performance in the presence of much more vastly experienced actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Aissa Maiga.”
Ejiofor plays Trywell Kamkwamba, William’s father, while Maiga plays his mother Agnes.
“The language was still a problem for a Malawian like me – but then I was probably the only one who understood Chichewa in the whole cinema, and so it did not matter to the rest of the audience,” Joyah said.
He pleaded with filmmakers to “next time give local actors a chance – they might surprise the world”.
Maybe the movie can inspire
Kamkwamba’s struggle to harness the power of the wind and convince those around him of his audacious scheme is set against a backdrop of social unrest as crops fail and taps run dry.
A strongman president character is shown visiting the village before his henchmen beat an elder who dared to raise the issue of drought and soaring grain prices, giving the film a political edge.
“It is a great film that captures a real-life drama and builds tension even when you already know the ending, a sign of a well-made movie,” Joyah added.
But filmgoer Gertrude Chimanga said the cod Chichewa was distracting.
“In some phrases, the actors are saying Chichewa words that do not make sense,” she complained.
Malawian cinematographer Chipiliro Khonje was more forgiving.
“I give them a thumbs-up for trying. They should have taken more time to study the language,” he said.
Kamkwamba, today aged 31, said he appreciated the use of his language in the film.
“Learning a language is one of the hardest things for people,” he said.
“When I was writing the book with my co-author, Bryan Mealer, I wanted to share my story. I hope the movie will be able to reach some people who weren’t able to access the book.
“Maybe the movie can inspire some people who hear my story to do something similar in their own lives.”
Kamkwamba said “for the most part I was not involved” with the film’s production, but he did answer questions about the windmill he built against the odds.
“I did visit the set while they were filming in Wimbe very close to my home,” he said of his home village, 150km north of the capital, Lilongwe.
Kamkwamba is now raising funds to open an innovation centre with his nonprofit organisation, the Moving Windmills Project.
“It is hard to watch because it’s reliving tough times from my past,” said Kamkwamba, who went on to do environmental studies at Dartmouth College in the US.
“But some parts were joyful moments, so I have mixed feelings rewatching the movie.”