Wednesday, June 05, 2013

William and the Windmill

I'm kind of disappointed in myself for this review - it seems like a natural place for me to make some sort of tortured science/engineering metaphor, but it wasn't until the last paragraph that something about potential energy being released even began to coalesce, but it didn't work. See, windmills take something that's already kinetic energy and... Well, anyway, you can be nerdy, but there has to be some sense to it.

This was a DocYard screening, so we got a post-film Q&A. I don't go to as many films in the DocYard series as I might like to see - their Monday-night schedule isn't quite ideal and, let's face it, one's interest in the subject can be just as big a factor in seeing a documentary as anything else - but every one I've been to has been fairly impressive. Sometimes the program can have a little over-clever - this one opened with an "experimental audio short", which... Nice at first, got heavy handed quickly.

Director Ben Nabors and moderator Erin Trahan

It was a nice Q&A. Nabors is apparently moving to Boston soon (cue lots of "hey, we got someone from Brooklyn!" jokes), and was happy to talk about anything people asked about. Much of the Q&A was less question than "very good movie!" statements, but there was a fair amount of other discussion. One big top of conversation was how subject William Kamkwamba's American patron (for lack of a better term) Tom Rielly seemed sincere but also kind of an example of the exploitation you can sometimes see of young people from humble circumstances. Nabors didn't really dance around the topic, saying it's not a movie about exploitation as much as expectation, but also sort of acknowledging that it was occasionally not quite the portrayal and movie Tom envisioned.

Nice guy, and nice movie. I haven't yet had a chance to watch "Moving Windmills", Nabors' original short on Kamkwamba and his windmill (it's on YouTube), but I may sometime later, especially since Nabors implied that it's more about the original windmill project than what came after. That's not necessarily more interesting, but it's a different focus, marking William and the Windmill less as an expansion than a different look at the subject.

William and the Windmill

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 June 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (The DocYard Presents, digital)

William and the Windmill does not so much tell the tale of a boy who builds a windmill to generate electricity for his poor village as one who has built such a windmill. After all, that's the sort of story which is over by the time a filmmaker can hear about it and get to Africa to shoot. Still, The question of what comes next can be an interesting one, even if it's not quite so obviously dramatic.

William Kamkwamba did build a wind turbine out of spare parts, scrap, and whatever else he could find at the age of fourteen; he figured out how from an English-language book in the village's library despite not yet knowing the language (a drought had left his farming family too poor to continue his formal education). The story spread, leading William to a TED event in a neighboring country, where he met an American patron, Tom Rielly, and was given a chance to attend the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, even though by then he was a bit older than the other students. A book is written (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind), and other opportunities present themselves, along with other pressures.

William is such a soft-spoken guy, especially when he initially seems uncomfortable with English, that it's very easy to imagine him being exploited; there are people around him who talk a lot and make plans while he nods his head and agrees or mostly listens. It's certainly a sharp contrast to Tom, who states early on that Africa and Africans have often had trouble with white dilettantes who either lose interest in their projects or are chiefly interested in reflected glory. And for all that self-awareness, Tom certainly does frequently seem like one of those guys. Director Ben Nabors, thankfully, decides to let this dynamic play out on-screen even though it's not the story he's trying to tell; it's a reminder of how hard it can be to see the line between sincerity and self-interest on one side or naivete and shyness on the other.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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