William and the Windmill

A few years ago, William Kamkwamba, a poor teenager from a rural village in Malawi, went to his tiny local library, found a textbook with a diagram explaining how a windmill works, and set out to build one himself. The resulting windmill looked ramshackle and fragile, made of wood and spare parts, but it worked. Word of this spread, and some prominent locals recruited William to give a talk at a TED offshoot gathering in neighboring Tanzania. There, one of the American conference organizers was moved by William’s story and decided that he would do anything he could to lift William out of poverty. With the help of various other American sponsors and do-gooders, the two of them set off on a speaking tour, which results in a book deal (with a co-author). Before long, William enrolls in a prestigious South African prep school, sells his life rights to Chiwetel Ejiofor, and enrolls in Dartmouth.

Without demonizing or condemning anyone, the new documentary William and the Windmill looks at this apparent dream scenario with biting skepticism. First of all, what exactly is everyone fawning over? The radio and talk show hosts we see interviewing William express surprise and delight that he was able to read a book and follow instructions. “Soft bigotry of low expectations” is putting it charitably. Second: it’s hard to prove a negative using a 90-minute documentary, but no one seems to ask William how much of this he actually wants. Oh sure, his benefactors lay out options and explain things, and make recommendations, but the outcome is always foreordained. William’s primary sponsor refers to himself as William’s “consigliere,” but there’s no doubt about who’s effectively calling the shots.

As his family and his village come to depend on his newfound fame and wealth, William starts to look not like the luckiest young man in Africa, but like someone who’s getting steamrolled. You can see the weight of destiny and responsibility visibly start to weigh down the taciturn, eager-to-please kid. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that William is hugely lucky, and that these are incredible opportunities that he would be exceedingly unlikely to be afforded absent the help of these well-intentioned white people.

And, the film suggests, so it goes with Africa. At one point, William and his entourage return to his village to kick off construction of a new school. A village elder gets up and reassures his people that they are in charge – that if they wanted to tell these do-gooders to go somewhere else, they could. Well, yeah, I guess they could.  But they won’t. They’ll let these people build their school, according to their plans, with the funds they supply. And it’ll probably be a nice school. But when they’re done they’ll leave, and then what? And what about the village down the road?

On a more intimate level, the white westerners in the film feel great about themselves for rescuing William (his “consigliere” admits that it’s his way of working out personal issues), but is paying many thousands of dollars to ship an African boy to New England so that he can study at Dartmouth really the best mode of aid to the continent? Or is it just a smug (if benevolent) form of colonialism?  William’s prep for freshman year involves reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

William and the Windmill doesn’t confront its characters with these questions, which would just provoke an argument. Instead, it captures the cognitive dissonance and self-absorption of well-meaning people who want to save the world, but are mostly helping themselves.

Eugene Novikov

Released: 2013
Genres: Documentary
Directed by: Ben Nabors
Rated: UR


Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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