A young Kenyan beat hundreds of other hopefuls to land a role of a lifetime in a movie that was shot in Malawi. Maxwell Simba plays the role of William Kamkwamba in The Boy Who Harnessed Wind.
The film recounts the inspiring true story of William Kamkwamba, as told in his memoir. It follows a precocious teen who set out to construct a makeshift wind turbine from scrap material, subsequently generating electricity and building a solar water pump which supplied drinking water to his village after a long period of drought and famine.
The film is set in 2001 Malawi. Things are hard for most in that struggling nation, and farmer Trywell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hopes education will eventually make life easier for his three children than they’ve been for himself and wife Agnes (Aissa Maiga). But since the local school isn’t free, and though William is a particularly bright student, the family’s inability to pay his tuition may end his education all too soon.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, popularly known for his role in 12 Years a Slave alongside another Kenyan actor, Lupita Nyong’o, wrote the screenplay and directed the movie that was adopted by Netflix. Simba, an alumnus of Alliance Boys High School, learnt about the auditions for this film through his arts teacher. After being chosen for the role, he familiarised himself with the character by reading Kamkwamba’s memoir, and spending ample time with Kamkwamba himself during the pre-production and shooting stages of the film.
Potboiler Production’s Andrea Calderwood, who made such films like The Constant Gardener, and The Last King of Scotland, assembled an experienced team for the film off the ground, according to Variety. “We had a lot of production experience around us, and that was something that I was very keen to do, because Malawi doesn’t necessarily have the infrastructure,” Calderwood says.
Casting director Alexa Fogel searched two nations to find the Kenyan newcomer Simba for the lead role. Ejiofor adds this about Simba, “When I saw him on tape, I was sort of stunned by him. He had a great minimalist quality and could communicate all of these emotions very simply, which is actually a technically difficult thing to do. He seemed to be doing that very effortlessly.”
Speaking to the press on the red carpet of the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last week, Simba said he was struck by William’s determination to fight for what he believes in despite his difficult relationship with his father and being expelled from school.
“If you are really determined to go get what you want, then the universe has its own way of working out for you to achieve, at the end of the day, what you wanted to achieve,” he said.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was feted with a Sh2 million ($20,000) cash award after winning the 2019 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at the festival. On February 13, the movie screened at Berlinale in Germany, receiving a standing ovation from the audience.
Simba is expected to join African Leadership Academy (ALA), a prestigious university in South Africa, later this year after receiving a scholarship due to his performance in the film. William Kamkwamba was also an alumni of ALA. It premiered worldwide on the streaming service on March 1.