The mixed reactions that followed the release of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind official trailer showed there were some Malawians who were sceptical of Malawi’s first Hollywood set.
But arguably, to many who flocked to Bingu International Convention Centre (Bicc) auditorium in Lilongwe on Sunday night for the Malawi premiere, the story of William Kamkwamba, which is told in this production, is more than awe-inspiring.
Surely, the fans, that included Inkosi Ya Makhosi Gomani V, former official hostess Cecelia Kadzamira and members of the diplomatic corps, might not have had an idea of the emotional rollercoaster ride that lay ahead.
The simplistic Kamkwamba was present too, with his wife Victoria and his parents and sister.
The film starts with the pangs of the infamous 2001 hunger that led to the death of some people across the country. For those that have never appreciated what maize means to Malawians, watching a man dropping dead in his farm testifies to the crucial role the grain plays in people’s lives.
But for Malawians such as Trywell, William’s father, a role tactfully played by Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, hunger means not just having a single meal a day or sleeping on an empty stomach. It means death.
In his debut, Kenyan Maxwell Simba embodies the real William’s strong conviction and some poise, while Ejiofor gives a supporting performance of controlled power as Trywell.
As a poor family in Wimbe, Kasungu, William’s parents represent the life of many Malawians in rural areas—low-income farmers who part ways with their meagre earnings to have their children in school.
Meanwhile, William spends most of his time repairing local villagers’ radios with materials he collects from scavenging episodes from a scrapyard. Self-taught, he uses those materials to power few electronic devices that are available to him.
His mother, Agnes, played by Aïssa Maïga, and sister, Annie executed by Lily Banda, are often home, supporting the efforts of Trywell, though it seems not good enough.
The recurring theme of rain-fed agriculture repeats itself throughout the film as evidenced through delays in precipitation, floods and then drought.
Little wonder, the film adopts an episodic narrative structure where chapter titles of sowing, growing, harvest, hunger and wind are used.
They illustrate the farming life not only experienced by Trywell and his fellow villagers in the film but the whole Malawi. A poor harvest means more hunger and results in skyrocketing of maize prices.
Something that hits home is how Ejiofor, in his directorial debut, creatively crafts in the aspect of politics in Malawi.
With party colours all over and women dancing, the president visits Wimbe where the chief takes to the podium to condemn the government on the hunger. Drowned in absolute power, party stalwarts rough him up and sadly, he never recovers.
One cannot talk about Kasungu without gule wamkulu and tobacco. These two are among the symbols of Malawi’s identification across the globe. So, the appearance of the powerful sect and Chinkhoma Auction Floors brings Malawians home.
Throughout the screening, Kamkwamba paid attention to the story as it unfolded. He was at times more consumed in the film than some fans. The irony of it all is that he was watching himself, tell his life story with the rest of the world.
The film is all about emotions, but they run high when Trywell succumbs to William’s pressure to surrender his bike so that it can be used as a propeller for water. As the turbine rotates, Trywell and all villagers stand in awe of the creation.
“The battery needs to charge,” William assures his father whose face looks distraught, perhaps at the realisation that his bike is gone for good yet the son has not achieved what he promised.
As soon as water pop out of the pipe, there is irresistible jubilation from Trywell and fellow villagers while the whole Bicc roared into a wild hand clapping. The power of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind lies in its title and sooner than later, fans are assured of one outcome: the boy in question will harness that wind.