Film Review: “William and the Windmill” — Unusual and Compelling

In the end, William Kamkwamba’s story in William and the Windmill is deeply inspirational. As the saying goes, talent is universal, opportunity is not.

William and the Windmill, a documentary by Ben Nabors. Scheduled screenings in the Northeast include BAM’s CinemaFest on June 22 and Rooftop Films in New York on July 2nd. Check the website for future showings.

By Glenn Rifkin

William up on the windmill in “William and the Windmill.”

Ben Nabors’ award-winning documentary William and the Windmill is the story beyond the story, an unusual but compelling portrait that leaves the viewer hopeful but vaguely uncomfortable. William is William Kamkwamba, the “boy who harnessed the wind” as a 14-year-old in a drought-stricken village in Wimbe, Malawi. In 2002, having been forced to drop out of school to help his impoverished family try to survive, Kamkwamba, innately gifted and curious, built a windmill from junkyard scraps and local tree branches to provide power to his family’s home.

The locals thought he was crazy but changed their minds when the ragged device actually worked. A story in a local Malawi newspaper got picked up in the blogosphere and the almost magical tale of this talented young inventor went viral. By 2007, Kamkwamba was invited to speak at a TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, Tanzania and his moving talk, in which he expressed his dreams about building a windmill for the entire village, struck a chord with TED organizers. With support from members of the TED community, specifically TED executive Tom Rielly, Kamkwamba’s life began to change in a dramatic fashion. He was invited to attend the new African Leadership Academy, a high voltage pan-African prep school in Johannesburg, South Africa and eventually was accepted to Dartmouth, where he will begin his senior year this fall. His 2009 autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, became an international best-seller, and this shy, soft-spoken young man was suddenly thrust into a very bright spotlight, including an appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. That he is ill-prepared both academically and emotionally for this new life is coupled with a quiet but fierce determination to find a way to succeed.

Nabors’ documentary, which won the Grand Jury prize for documentary features at this year’s SXSW conference and was partially financed by a Kickstarter campaign, tracks Kamkwamba’s life in the wake of his newfound fame and the result is both inspirational and discomforting. Throughout the 95-minute film, we trail along on Kamkwamba’s journey as he straddles two remarkably dissimilar worlds, shepherded with all good intentions into a extraordinary new life. It is a life that makes him a stranger in a strange land, speaking a language with which he is clearly uncomfortable and sporting a look of quiet unease in his expressive eyes.

Besides Kamkwamba, the film chronicles the paternal influence of Tom Rielly, the flamboyant community and fellows director for TED, who has taken on the task of mapping Kamkwamba’s future. Rielly, a one-time actor and successful tech entrepreneur who is best known as the founder of PlanetOut, the first gay and lesbian website, is a combination of trusted uncle, mother hen, and stalwart protector. His motivation, as he emotionally explains late in the film, has something to do with his own unfulfilled desire for a caring parental figure, and he obviously feels deeply about Kamkwamba’s well-being. But along the way, there is the nagging question: how does Kamkwamba feel about all this? Answering Nabors’s questions throughout the film, his sentences are rarely more than three or four words. The pained or blank expressions on his face seem to reveal some mixture of fear and awkwardness, perhaps triggered by his struggle with English but more likely because he is deeply embarrassed at the unceasing glare of celebrity aimed at him via the unblinking movie camera.


Even back home in Malawi, where he is now a local celebrity, Kamkwamba longs to be accepted for himself as a person, not the famous boy who harnessed the wind. There is a twinge of helicopter parent in Rielly’s coaching and encouragement; he seems genuinely bound and determined for this young man to succeed, but it is not always clear how Kamkwamba feels about the process. Despite Kamkwamba’s academic struggles at the ALA, he manages to graduate; his family members’ arrival in South Africa suggests that they are more bewildered than proud about the matriculation. When Kamkwamaba moves into his Dartmouth dorm room for freshman year, a viewer is torn between the excitement and promise of this incredible opportunity and the urge to scream, “Please leave this kid alone!”

That freshman year passes in a montage of seasonal changes on the Dartmouth campus and the Kamkwamba facing the camera after his first year is an entirely different person. More confident and outgoing, he no longer speaks in halting one-word responses but with obvious pleasure at where he’s found himself. Though we see him back in Malawi inspecting a shiny, new,   solar-powered windmill amid the original ramshackle models, the viewer has not been told that he has been busy and ambitious in the intervening years. We see the new school he helped build, but Kamkwamba’s projects included clean water, malaria prevention, and solar-powered lighting for homes in the village. The solar-powered windmill also pumps clean water from a new deep water well. It is hard to figure out why these accomplishments were not mentioned.

In the end, Kamkwamba’s story is deeply inspirational. As the saying goes, talent is universal, opportunity is not. The rest of his journey is yet to unfold, but clearly Kamkwamba has achieved that unassailable dream: a well-earned ticket toward unlimited opportunity.

Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for nearly 30 years. He has written about music, film, theater, food and books for The Arts Fuse. His new book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire was recently published by McGraw-Hill.

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