Chiwetel Ejiofor won the best actor Bafta for 12 Years a Slave and has chosen a similarly stirring, against-the-odds true story for his directorial debut. The star has also adapted William Kamkwamba’s memoir that’s set in a small village in Malawi in 2001 when the 13-year-old William overcame school expulsion and parental mistrust to create a crop-saving wind turbine with the aid of a library book and a bicycle dynamo.
Maxwell Simba (in his debut) carries the focal role of William with conviction and some aplomb, while Ejiofor gives a supporting performance of controlled power as the boy’s embattled father, Trywell. The film adopts an episodic narrative structure – using the chapter titles of sowing, growing, harvest, hunger and wind – to illustrate the arduous agrarian existence experienced by Trywell and his fellow villagers.
Constantly at the mercy of a climate that can parch or flood the land at any given moment, the farmers are also hamstrung by corrupt government officials (who are not shy at handing out beatings) and rapacious capitalism (tobacco industry-induced deforestation). It’s sensitively directed and Ejiofor strives to keep things real with much of the dialogue in Chichewa.
It’s no bad thing to have Mike Leigh’s regular cameraman Dick Pope (Mr Turner, Peterloo) on board to provide a vivid and visceral authenticity. Meanwhile, Antonio Pinto’s subtle score gently underpins a story that avoids lazy lapses into sentimentality. The result is a genuinely life-affirming tale that displays a refreshingly unpatronising view of the challenges facing communities in 21st-century Africa and acts as a ringing endorsement of the importance of education.