The boy who harnessed the wind is a movie based on the book by William Kamkwamba from Malawi and cowriter Bryan Mealer. It tells the true story of William growing up in the small village of Kasungu, Malawi as a son of farmers. His parents have a vision of sending all of their kids to school and even on to university. William and his sister Annie are both highly intelligent: Annie passed her senior exams and is qualified for university, but there is no money to send her yet. William spends a lot of time in a junkyard where he finds old electric parts, which he then uses to fix old radios. After he starts school, William’s parents are unable to fulfill the tuition payments for the entire year and he is banned. Due to the fact that Annie is having a secret relationship with William’s science teacher, he is able to work out a deal by blackmailing his teacher and is allowed to study in the library and attend the science classes.
By now, the country has fallen into a famine as a result of floods and a drought. The government is incapable of handling the situation and riots and looting become a practice. William’s family is robbed of their already scarce grain stocks leaving them with no other option than to go on ration, they will eat only one meal a day. Together with many other people fleeing from the village, Annie decides to elope with the teacher to find her luck elsewhere and to leave her family with “one less mouth to feed”. In an attempt to save his village William comes up with a plan to build a windmill to power an irrigation system, so that they can harvest throughout the year. As a test he builds a small model that fuels an old radio, but in order to make a windmill that is big enough to power the water pump William needs his father’s bicycle. His father considers this plan to be pointless and refuses to give up his bicycle, which is his last prized-possession. As thing continue to get worse for the family and the village, William’s mother intervenes and makes his father reevaluate the plan. They come together with the few people left in the village and build the windmill and an irrigation system. William’s plan succeeds and they are able to harvest year round.
In the credits it becomes clear that Williams achievements got him a scholarship and eventually he graduated from the prestigious Dartmouth University.
The languages used in the movie are English and Chichewa, a Bantu language spoken in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The alternation of the languages is very deliberate: the ‘common’ people, like William and his family, speak Chichewa, while the government officials and higher-ranked characters speak English. This creates a feeling of “us -VS- them”, a distinction between the struggling farmers and the elite. When William’s father finds out that Annie has eloped, he becomes extremely emotional. Both angry and sad he screams at William to go find her, this is also said in English. I found this striking, because you would expect people to go back to their native language when emotional, but in this case it almost seemed like William’s father wanted to prove that he was no less than the English speaking, well-educated teacher.
When the mother speaks to Annie about her future, about Annie becoming more than just a mother and wife and more than she, herself, could ever imagine, she does this in Chichewa. This is an interesting contradiction: the words she speaks are very emancipated and modern, but she does this in a traditional language, although she is perfectly capable of speaking English, which is considered more educated and modern. Because of this contradiction the words get a stronger meaning: Annie has more chances and will get further in life than her mother, who lives in a more traditional role.
During the drought, when William first pitches his windmill plan to his father, he does this in Chichewa. This situation is difficult, because it puts him in a position of disrespect towards his father. William has more knowledge, but cannot say so directly because it will offend his father. Therefore he speaks in Chichewa, as to not come across as arrogant. Unfortunately the plan does not come across very well: his father does not understand how the windmill can help their situation. William decides to defy his father and says something in Chichewa, which can be translated as: “I know this that you don’t sir. Because of school….” This infuriates his father and is considered extremely disrespectful. Later in the movie Williams tries again, this time with friends who believe in his plan. They go up to William’s father and William asks for the bicycle in Chichewa. His father is flabbergasted by the nerve of a couple of young boys, trying to ambush into giving up his most prized-possession to fulfill a boy’s dream. He then speaks in English, as if he wants to come across more intimidating. The other boys respond to him in English, they don’t have to be as respectful to him as William has to. When the situation cumulates into an almost fight, the boys are too respectful of the father to actually fight him and leave the scene. The social hierarchy is sensible throughout the entire movie, but in this particular scene, it becomes more visible by the use of language.
Throughout the movie there are also a lot of things that are not being directly said, but that change the entire discourse of the story. For instance: when William first hangs out with the boys that will later help him build the small windmill, he manages to fix the radio of one of the boys so they can hear the game, but when he turns the radio on a news bulletin comes on about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They hardly pay any attention to it, but later on in the movie it becomes clear that the reason of the government being unable to help the struggling farmers is that because of these attacks the world has fallen into a global financial crisis and there is simply no money to intervene and help the farmers.
The fact that the mother refuses to pray for rain like her ancestors did, is a very strong depiction of her character and vision. She does not want to rely on old tales, but believes that with education and science one can find their way out of the misery. That is also why she desperately wants to have her kids go to school and eventually university. Without saying so, the movie shows that she is way ahead of her time (or maybe more ahead of her situation and position) and that she has a very strong character.
When the family decides to go on ration Annie gets very upset. To her, the dream of going to university and always having enough food has become her everyday reality. And when all this falls away because of the famine, she feels as if her parents have failed her. The stress of not knowing what the future holds and the insecurities of unexpected events that Annie feels becomes very clear in this scene. And although she seems like quite a grown woman throughout the movie, in this scene she looks more like a scared little girl.
In the movie the director uses both language and nonverbal signs as a way to strengthen a certain scene or feeling. The discourse therefore can be changed by something as literal as language, but also by something less touchable and seemingly futile as a news bulletin. When being aware of these uses of discourse and discourse changers the hidden layers of the story become clear. These are also layers that would be not, or at least a lot less, visible in the original book. As they come across stronger as an image than when described in written words.
Although the movie, obviously, romanticizes the story and the hardships William and his family had to endure, it is still a nice movie to watch.