Netflix film tells tale of Malawian eco boy genius

LILONGWE, Malawi (AFP) – 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 around 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found a pump at the tip, he sets about building a working windmill to extract water from the ground, using only an outdated book from his school’s library.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 last year 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.

“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 told AFP. 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.

“(But) 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 film-makers to “next time give local actors a chance – they might surprise the world”. 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.

Kamkwamba, today aged 31, told AFP that 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.”