“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” tells the touching true story of William Kamkwamba, a young African boy who used his knowledge of electrical systems and his school’s library to design a wind turbine system that would help save his village from famine during a dry season. The artfully shot film uses William’s remarkable story to create a compelling and emotional narrative about family life and sacrifice in the midst of poverty and crisis.
I was truly impressed by the tableau of rural African life that the film managed to present. It immerses audiences in an environment that most of us would be hard-pressed to imagine: a place where people fight and riot over grain, where batteries are a precious commodity, where barely-concealed political corruption runs rampant, and where the weather can spell the difference between life and death. The film transports its viewers to this place that seems so foreign, conspicuously depicting the stark differences between America and the small African village, while somehow simultaneously highlighting the similarities between here and there. The film shocked me with scenes of a family selling the roof off their house with one breath, then reminded me with the next that human emotions and familial ties are a universal aspect of almost any culture or situation.
Going into the movie, I was skeptical that it would be able to fill its one-hour 53-minute runtime with such a simplistic story, but I found myself pleasantly surprised. The story, which details the months leading up to the famine as well as the drought period itself, lent itself well to a variety of emotional scenes. The first half of the movie is overshadowed by a growing feeling of helplessness as the events that cause the famine in the village occur one after another. The film begins with an elaborate funeral, expertly designed to contrast with the unceremonial burials that occur almost as an afterthought when people start dying of starvation.
As the conditions in the village get worse, emotions run high, culminating in several beautiful confrontations and resolutions between young William and his father, wonderfully played by Maxwell Simba and Chiwetel Ejiofor, respectively. Yet the most powerful scene in the film didn’t take place between these two characters at all, but between William’s mother and older sister, played by Aïssa Maïga and Lily Banda respectively. During a brilliant scene, the mother says to her daughter, “You think I’d let you starve to death? When I cut off my own arm to feed you, then you’ll know that you’re my child.” The fact that these words are spoken in another language and can only be read in English doesn’t lessen the impact of the moment in the slightest, and that is a true testament to the strength of the actresses that perform the scene. This scene is just one of many almost equally powerful moments throughout the film.
“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” isn’t especially innovative, and it doesn’t stand out above similar dramas. But what it does do is paint a picture of a life that few of its viewers have ever lived. It shows audiences the struggles of living with next to nothing in an unforgiving land, but it also shows the value of family and education and togetherness. Ultimately, it’s a powerful feel-good drama based on a fascinating true story. It may not be extraordinary, but this Netflix film is certainly worth a watch.