Chiwetel Ejiofor’s directorial debut, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, is this year’s British entry for Oscar’s recently renamed Best International Feature Film category. But the same rules apply: the film must be predominantly in a language other than English. In the case of Ejiofor’s film, that language is Chichewa, the local Bantu language of Malawi. It was a language Ejiofor didn’t speak and had to learn when he decided to take on a role in the film.
The true story follows William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba), a young schoolboy in Kasungu, Malawi, whose family struggles to pay for his schooling when a drought leads to a devastating famine and they are unable to farm the land. It’s his enterprising thirst for science—and a desire to teach himself even when he is refused a place at school—that leads him to design a windmill to power an electrical water pump. But not before a complicated negotiation with his father Trywell (played by Ejiofor) to scavenge the family bicycle for parts, when it’s the only major asset they own.
The film was picked up by Netflix after its premiere at Sundance in January, and its inspiring tale, based on the memoir by Kamkwamba with Bryan Mealer, was a critical hit.
DEADLINE: Given the scale of this film, and the logistics of shooting it where you did, this seems like an ambitious first step into directing. When you picked up this book, was the call undeniable?
CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: It’s like a snowball effect, isn’t it? I started reading this book, and it was just one thing leading to another. Pretty soon you’re away and you’ve made a choice.
I think it came out in 2009, and I read it then. I thought, I’d love to tell this story on film. To see if I can do that. I began that process of talking to people about it and bringing on Potboiler Productions and Andrea Calderwood and Gail Egan, and then wrote the draft of it.
Or rather, I’d written a draft, and then I went out to Malawi for the first time to meet William Kamkwamba. He was in the US as well as in Malawi. He was back and forth, but I met him there. I needed to meet him and his family and to start to understand that community and to try to get just a stronger sense of it. So, then that was the process of a long time of writing. The BBC came on board, BFI came on board, Participant came on board later on.
It was this sort of snowball effect of then wanting to shoot in Malawi and knowing that that would have its own complications. But knowing that it was kind of difficult to try and conceive of the film anywhere else but the actual locations. Because when William was first taking me around and he was showing me where everything actually happened, my first thought was, Well, this is great. We should shoot it right here. We should shoot it in Wimbe and Kasungu.
By the time you’ve made a decision to shoot in Malawi, it feels completely pointless to go three miles down the road to another village for whatever reason and try and do it that way. Why not just shoot in all of the locations where all of the things happened as much as you can? I wanted to shoot in his house, in fact. But he’d done so much innovation over the years on his house, that I couldn’t shoot there. I shot next door to his house, in his cousin’s house.
So all of that stuff really, in the end, helped to ground the project. Because that decision was made of trying to really get to a very strong, authentic root of everything that was going on. Then because of that, the choice becomes well, yes, English is spoken in Malawi, but not really in the villages. We have to use Chichewa.
It’s a real snowball effect of, “Well, this aspect might be difficult, but we can handle it,” and I think if I’d said all these things to myself at the very beginning, it certainly would have felt crazy to try and do all of them. One decision at a time made it a much larger, more complex thing.
But also, it probably should be difficult. It should be all-encompassing, and you should wonder in the middle of the night how you’re going to pull all these things off.
DEADLINE: What are the practicalities of shooting in Malawi? Did you have many local people on crew?
EJIOFOR: It was crew from around the world really. I mean, there has never been a film of anywhere near this size in Malawi. Movies are made in Malawi, but not on this kind of scale. So, there were some people who were familiar with making films. We could bring those people in to production at some level. Then it was getting people from initially Kenya, bringing in Kenyan crew to film it, and from South Africa obviously.
Then the Brazilians came out as well. Tulé Peak did the production design and Bia Salgado was doing costume design. So, they came out. Later on, in fact, Antonio Pinto did the music. There was the kind of Brazilian influence in the film mainly because of my love of City of God, which they all worked on. Because I loved the aesthetic of City of God; it felt so cinematic but also so rooted in authenticity that it felt exactly the kind of language that I wanted to talk in this film.
Then, of course, there were loads of people who came out from the UK. Dick Pope is the cinematographer and Valerio Bonelli came out, he’s an Italian editor who lives in the UK. It was wonderful. We took over a hotel in Kasungu, the Chikho Hotel. Had all of the cast and crew in this one hotel. It was a perfectly functional hotel, I really enjoyed it. But it was also great to be making this kind of film and to have the entire cast and crew take over a hotel.
It’s really useful if you’re the director. You’ve got everybody in one place and nobody has anything else to do, basically. You can be calling rehearsals anytime you like. You can be having meetings with every department. Every department is in some meeting room or something in the hotel. So, you’re constantly drifting in and out. That was the kind of perfect setup for how we were trying to do it.
DEADLINE: At what point did you decide to play Trywell? Was that there from the start?
EJIOFOR: I can’t remember. I mean, I speak to Andrea about this a little bit, because I always seems to think that I wasn’t. But maybe this has been the kind of trick of the producer. I always thought, Oh, I’m going to play Trywell. She’s like, “Sure you will.”
I think when I first started writing the film, I was just too young to play Trywell. I was in my early 30s and the boy is 13. I mean, technically it could be my son, but it just felt like it was all a bit of a push then. I just felt like I would be looking for an older actor, a few years older than me, maybe a decade older than me, roughly, to play Trywell.
Then, over the years, I just started to slip into that kind of sweet spot to play the part. It just got to the point where I just felt like it would be a weird thing to do to another actor. To be the right age to play the part. But to have no reason essentially, except for that I was directing and writing, to not play the part. So it suddenly felt like, how does one have that kind of relationship to an actor who’s just going to be thinking every day, “Well, why don’t you do it?”
I was very glad of it because of the relationship with Maxwell. It became apparent very early on that we just had this very unbroken bond as a director and actor, and playing father and son. There was nobody else in between our dynamic, which was really great. It was really useful and actually very comforting to me, and I think him as well. Just that we could play all of those kinds of dynamics within ourselves.
DEADLINE: What came first, the decision to play Trywell, or the decision to shoot mostly in Chichewa?
EJIOFOR: Oh, I think it was to use the local language. I knew that, taking on Trywell, I’d have to start learning Chichewa immediately.
DEADLINE: Did you do lines phonetically?
EJIOFOR: I mean, eventually, but it started just learning the language to get the basics. Time started to tighten up, and I was rewriting during the process, which is an interesting thing if you’re using a language you don’t speak. It becomes a good writing discipline, when you know everything you change has to be translated and then you have to learn it in a different language. You become very sparing [laughs]. So, I learnt the basics and then did the actual lines phonetically.
DEADLINE: Presumably you had plenty of people around who would tell you if you were going wrong.
EJIOFOR: Exactly. It was a process. When I first started, my assistant, who’s Malawian, I think he just thought I was insane. We’d do a line and it would take 45 minutes to try and say the line over and over again.
But muscle memory is such a major part of being an actor. I don’t know what that exactly is. But being able to pick up things relatively quickly that you know you’re going to utilize for a short period of time, has been what I’ve been doing for 20-something years. Whether it’s playing the violin or Brazilian jujitsu, the goal is you get to a point of proficiency at something relatively quickly, and you just develop the skill over a while. Just with him, I was able to start to really work on that and build on the stuff that I’d been working on before I left Malawi for the last round of pre-production.
DEADLINE: Last year’s British entry for Foreign Language was another African story; I Am Not a Witch. That’s an encouraging thing from a nation that doesn’t have much of a reputation for looking outwards, especially right now.
EJIOFOR: Exactly. I think it’s great. I Am Not a Witch and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind are really strong examples of what can happen if you look outwards, and you allow people to tell stories that connect to them. Because we are so multicultural, and there are points of view from all over the world that are centered in the UK but have influence and perspective on so many different things.
Also, there’s sort of generational shift, of now people who are second generation, who are now older, and who are keen to connect two different aspects of their psychology. One, which is their family and their history on the continent, and the other their life in the UK, and all of the opportunities that the UK has in terms of film. So, combining those things seems such a natural thing to do and such an interesting perspective to encourage.
DEADLINE: What you realize is how much common ground one can find in stories from vastly different perspectives. Do you believe in that adage, “the specific is the universal”?
EJIOFOR: I think one of the things about having this film on Netflix, which gives tens of millions of people access to it, is that because so many people are seeing the film, you’re getting a real sense of what that means; how a film like this connects to people all over the world. To different kinds of communities and different groups of people. Sometimes from people that maybe expect, or that you think maybe that they’re coming from slightly similar situations. But then also people who are in completely different circumstances, who then relate to these themes of education, or relate to the themes of family.
So, there’s interconnectedness there, within a global film community that is looking to tell stories that aren’t as binary or obvious as maybe what has come before. We like to categorize people and break them down in demographics that are very sort of easy to understand or something, when actually we’re much more complex than that.
And that’s the real charge—and challenge—of diversity in cinema. It opens up so many different avenues that are maybe unexpected. People can connect to different films in unexpected ways, maybe even to themselves.
DEADLINE: At its best, this artform is remarkable at opening minds to shared experiences. But at its worst…
EJIOFOR: It does the other thing. It closes minds, yeah. Or, it reinforces a closed-ness of opinion. It reinforces negative attitudes at its worst.
But yes, at its best, you can come to something and think, I wonder what this is all about. And find yourself completely moved and engaged and transported. Perhaps even educated about a whole other circumstance, but fundamentally engaged with it because it speaks to you as well. There’s something about your dynamics that are also being represented, that maybe you hadn’t thought about in that way. Or hadn’t connected to quite in that sense.
So, I do think, if we push this idea, and people continue to be engaged with different and diverse storytellers and stories, then we’ll enrich our cultural landscape. Almost by definition. It’s sad that it still takes some convincing when it seems self-evident.
DEADLINE: Do you think the challenge to mount films that don’t have precedent in what has come before—that aren’t enormous blockbusters—is getting any easier?
EJIOFOR: There’s definitely a content boom right now. That’s allowing a lot of different voices. Independent cinema is always difficult, and it has been that way for a long time. Getting films out there and getting them seen—as well as just getting them made—is always tricky. But I think there are pathways to doing it.
I don’t think of it as an us vs. them thing in terms of big movies. I love making large tentpole films and being part of that narrative. Those movies can tell very strong, very rich stories that are relevant and engaging.
But so long as people are still going to the cinema and seeing movies, independent film will always continue. There’s some sort of lifeblood in there. I feel like all the elements are there for a very strong, creative time. Both in streaming and in cinemas. Both in tentpole and independent. Everything we need is there, and it’s just about connecting the dots, really. Continuing to push and make sure that films can reach audiences that will engage with them.
I think one of the things that is quite interesting is the question of why one goes to the cinema. We have to ask ourselves that question quite a lot, and I think it’s interesting how that might be changing. What actually drives us to the cinema? I don’t know.
It’s a weird thing in a way. But I remember desperately wanting to see The Farewell in the cinema for a number of different reasons. I realized when I’d made my way down to the cinema, and I just started to ask myself the question. For some reason I felt like I just wanted to see it in the cinema. I felt it was a cinematic film and I wanted this experience in the cinema. But also, I knew that there are subtitles and there was something about that where I was like, “It’s just better to read subtitles in cinema than it is at home.”
I thought that was interesting because I think there was a time where subtitled films were the sort of things you’d wait until you could watch them at home. It made me wonder if the pathways had changed for why we go to the cinema.
DEADLINE: Well, we talk a lot about streaming and distribution and the kinds of movies getting made. But I don’t think we talk enough about exhibition, and the way it is affecting people’s access to cinema, or desire to go to the cinema.
EJIOFOR: I think there are definitely more people who want to go to the cinema than are finding their way there. Which again, I think is a great thing about having access to films on streaming and being part of the cultural conversation without having to necessarily be living in the center of London.
I think there’s a balance to be struck. I think that the elements, the ingredients, are all there for something very, very rich. For a richer period than I ever remember seeing.
But also, it’s sort of understanding what our relationships to cinema is authentically. Because I feel like I have a strong relationship to cinema in terms of my research into cinema, or what I’ve seen in cinema. But if I actually look back and think of movies that I really genuinely saw in the cinema… That’s also something that’s quite interesting. I’m sure I didn’t see the Godfather movies in the cinema. Maybe the third one, but not one or two. And yet my sense of seeing them was that I saw them in the cinema.
There’s the way that we sense cinema, the way that we remember our relationship to cinema, and the reality of what we actually have seen on the big screen versus a little TV/VHS combo from 1995. Which is probably where I saw a lot of films. It still felt like I was enjoying a cinematic experience because the films were conceived in that way and talked about in that way. They were analysed as cinema. When we start thinking of things as just being on television, and therefore not being as important, we are creating the image of cinema being smaller than it is, I think.
DEADLINE: That contrasts something people who have worked in theatre know to be true. Every night, a performance of a play changes based on myriad factors. And it’s one of the things about the form that the people who practice it love. I saw this film at its Sundance world premiere, and it was an event. But many people will see it for the first time at home on Netflix. Part of the challenge of this artform, surely, is that it must work just as well in both of those environments, and anything in between.
EJIOFOR: Yeah, that’s true. There are any number of mediums and ways of doing it, but it all returns to whether the core story works. I love the fact that when you’re in Sundance or Berlin, you have the complete thrill of showing the film in a festival setting. But then, back home, my neighbor’s daughter is building a windmill, and she probably wouldn’t have seen the film in any other context than seeing it at home with her family. It can create all these memorable deep connections despite the different ways of accessing it.
I feel like, given the option, a lot of people would want to go to the cinema. There are great advantages. I don’t think anybody would ever deny that. But there’s also the intimacy of the home environment. Depending on what it is, and what you’re looking to get, it can be just as rich there too.
The forms can coexist. As long as they can figure a way forward with the business models. I think that if they’re all fighting each other, and turning it into a pissing contest, it will hurt everybody. But if people can find the old art of compromise and negotiation and can figure out, “Well, what are the windows going to be that you get some of what you want and I can get some of what I want?” Then we can live together. Then people can get a chance to engage in the way that they want to. I’m optimistic. I feel like it could be potentially a very, very good time artistically for audiences and for creators.
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