The story of Malawian teenager William Kamkwamba is candy for the Western imagination: In 2001, the 14-year-old Kamkwamba dropped out of school and picked up a library book about harnessing electricity, then built a windmill from scratch, effectively powering his subsistence farmer family and saving them from the debilitating effects of a famine. Kamkwamba’s scientific achievement speaks for itself, but the attention he received in its wake is a thornier issue that Ben Nabors turns into a fascinating look at the tricky balancing act of third world activism. Transformed into a media darling and public cause, Kamkwamba was either rescued, exploited or — as Nabors implies — something in between.
At the root of “William and the Windmill” is the relationship between Kamkwamba and Tom Rielly, an eloquent American entrepreneur who met Kamkwamba when he was invited to speak at a TEDGlobal conference and decided to invest in his future. Nabors follows the development of this connection over the course of five years, starting when Kamkwamba is 19 and culminating with his enrollment in Dartmouth College at the age of 24.
In between, he co-authors the instantly popular tome “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” attempts to finish his high school education during a global book tour, and struggles to remain in touch with his family’s needs. While Nabors maintains a close connection to his subject, the filmmaker doesn’t back down from dealing with the question of whether the humble and clearly overwhelmed Kamkwamba truly benefits from all the attention. Without providing a firm answer, Nabors obtains a remarkable closeup view of Kamkwamba’s unconventional rise, at one point capturing the teen discussing how he learned the meaning of the word “stress.”
Though questionably utilized as a symbol for the untold millions of undiscovered young African intellectuals held back by poverty, Kamkwamba isn’t treated the same way by the movie. Nabors contrasts the industry pressures his subject faces with more tender exchanges he has with his community as well as the experiences he goes through getting acclimated to resources unavailable to him in the past — including the ability to swim, which he learns how to do in a lesson caught on camera, providing one of many gently humorous interludes.
Through such smaller moments, Nabors allows us to see Kamkwamba’s imperfections, providing a reminder that regardless of his immediate talents, he still needs room to develop. Whether struggling to perform in a math class or getting pointers from Rielly and his wife about responsible drinking in college, Kamkwamba takes on a fully human dimension less present in the hype surrounding his popularity.
Still, “William and the Windmill” leaves room for celebrating Kamkwamba’s accomplishment through the prism of his own reminiscences, most prominently in a gorgeous montage that recounts the windmill’s creation accompanied by Kamkwamba’s narration. Nabors also allows Kamkwamba’s family to have a voice, providing a telling contrast to the perceptions of him from the well-meaning white people surrounding him for the rest of the movie.
Perhaps because of the filmmaker’s level of access, “William and the Windmill” contains a certain authorized feel, creating the lingering sense that some aspects of the character’s story remain in the dark — but not much. Nabors even captures Kamkwamba signing away his life rights to a movie producer and then asks him if he understands the ramifications of the contract. Once again, ambiguity dominates; the only certainly is that some part of him misses his old home.
For that reason, the cool-headed Rielly occasionally takes on nearly as much prominence for his role in introducing so many new pressures to Kamkwamba’s life. By supporting him, Rielly also takes on symbolic value, representing the capriciousness afforded by wealth. As the man himself points out, clichés associated with his form of activism dictate that the backer loses interest in the beneficiary after a couple of years, and while Kamkwamba seems to have made it far enough on his own, his future remains uncertain. But with its savvy construction, “William and the Windmill” works against the possibility of abandoning its subject. Rather than blindly championing him, it adds new value to the forces that put him on the map in the first place by keeping the discussion alive.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A definite crowdpleaser with a message, the movie is likely to wind up with a documentary-friendly distributor that can play up its appeal in major marketplaces, it will see most of its business on VOD (unless it finds a home with resources capable of pushing to a wider audience and, eventually, awards season).