He’s been nominated for an Oscar, holds CBE status as bestowed by the Queen, and he co-starred in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But what Chiwetel Ejiofor really wanted to do is direct. Well, it’s one of the many things he’s wanted to do in his career, and now more than a decade after his directorial debut with a short called Slapper, he’s finally made the leap to feature filmmaking with the Netflix Original drama The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, in which he also stars.
Based on a true story, which had already been documented in a nonfiction film, and inspired by both Ejiofor’s heritage and his favorite film of all time, this new streaming title has a lot of roots worthy of recognition. Below is a list of some of these roots, movies to watch after you see The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Some of them are directly linked to the story and this production and others are titles I was reminded of while enjoying the inspiring and dignifying film about a young man saving his village.
Queen of Katwe (2016)
It may seem ignorantly convenient to compare William Kamkwaba, the hero of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, and Phiona Mutesi, the main character of Queen of Katwe. They’re both from eastern nations in Africa, both grew up in poverty, found something they excelled in that gained them international fame, and wound up in American universities yet still gave back locally to their places of origin, where they still call home. They have a lot of differences, too, of course, most prevalently in that Kamkwaba’s claim to fame is building wind turbines and Mutesi’s is playing chess.
Queen of Katwe is a bit more of a feel-good movie, but it’s still not the fluff you’d expect for it being a Disney production. What’s great about both The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and Queen of Katwe is there’s no attempt at whitewashing or otherwise disrespecting the setting and culture of their stories. They’re both even filmed in the real places where their heroes hail from. Sure, they’ve got Oscar-caliber movie stars in parental roles, but fortunately these days there are persons of color in this industry famous enough that you don’t need a made-up white savior role or anything like that. They’re faithful as can be without being the documentary versions (which exist for both, too).
William and the Windmill (2013)
Here is that documentary version of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Had I realized that Ejiofor’s movie was coming out and had I known what it was about, I probably would have recommended William and the Windmill on my list of movies to watch before you see the new releases of 2019. But it’s fine that I didn’t, because the dramatic telling of Kamkwaba’s life is not quite a remake of the nonfiction film. William and the Windmill follows Kamkwaba after he’s become known for his first wind turbine, so the earlier documentary is kind of a sequel to the new biopic.
As a follow-up, fans of Ejiofor’s movie might be disappointed to see that the happy ending of that story turns into a less than joyous. Director Ben Nabors follows Kamkwaba through TED Talks and a book tour and on his way to Dartmouth for his eventual studies far from his home in rural Malawi. It’s not exactly a miserable existence for the science whiz, but it’s a lot of limelight pageantry for a rather humble figure who’d rather be doing more than talking about what he’s done and will do. For a recent compliment, check out On Her Shoulders, which follows now Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad being paraded through public appearances and the occasional moments where she actually gets to perform active activism rather than a ceremonial sort.
Columbite Tantalite (2013)
Ejiofor’s first short film isn’t available anywhere (that I can find anyway), but his second film might be more relevant to his feature debut anyway. Columbite Tantalite, which isn’t nearly as straightforward a narrative as The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, is concerned with another part of Africa: the Democratic Republic of Congo. The nearly 13-minute film is almost more of an essay in response to the actor’s having portrayed Patrice Lumumba in a production of A Season in the Congo at London’s Young Vic theater. It spotlights soldiers in the past and a video game developer in the present, linking their lives through the titular resource used for all electronic gadgets today. Watch it here:
Ejiofor says of the idea for his film in his introduction for The Guardian:
“Coltan is with us almost everywhere we are – in smartphones, laptops, desktop computers, games consoles – but few people have heard of it. And its story reaches back directly to Congo, where the mining industry has been linked with everything from bankrolling civil wars in the region to the destruction of gorilla habitats. In full, coltan’s name is columbite-tantalite, after Tantalus, the figure in Greek mythology who was condemned to a horrifying eternal torment, of the things he most desired being just out of his grasp. For many people in Congo, that’s exactly what coltan is – close enough to touch, but its riches out of reach. Like copper at the birth of the electrical age, rubber during the era of automobiles, diamonds for as long as they have been mined, it’s a substance that Congo has supplied to other countries, and which, for all the wealth it generates, has turned into a kind of curse. I knew then that I had the nugget of an idea. And the title for the film.”
The Man Who Stopped the Desert (2010)
Now we move to another part of the continent for the documentary The Man Who Stopped the Desert. There’s a similar structure to the title of this film and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. That’s probably only a direct coincidence, as the films do likely have kindred storytelling origins. The Man Who Stopped the Desert, which like William and the Windmill is distributed by Journeyman Pictures, is about Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer in Burkina Faso who began experimenting with soil rehabilitation in the 1970s and helped transform his region’s terrain so that it wouldn’t just become part of the Sahara. Part of what he sought to do was what Ejiofor’s father complains isn’t being done in his area, where forest are sold off despite their natural importance.
The Man Who Stopped the Desert‘s heavy use of dramatization makes for a slightly corny tone but because of the technique, we may never need a full-on biopic of Sawadogo the way we now have one of Kamkwaba. Fans of this doc and Sawadogo’s story, though, might want a sequel at some point. The ongoing conflict between the man and local urban expansion would allow for another compelling narrative. So far, director Mark Dodd has kept tabs on Sawadogo’s developments but for his follow-up, he made Ethiopia Rising: Red Terror to Green Revolution, which profiles a similar man, Aba Hawi, working toward transforming his environment and saving his own village.
Gule Wamkulu: The Great Dance (1991)
One of the best things about The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the continual appearance of the Gule Wamkulu, a sort of secret cult of the Chewa people that wears incredible masks and costumes and performs a dance, also known as the Gule Wamkulu. One legend says they’re the spirits of ancestors. Regardless, their thing is a ritual signifying the initiation of young men into adulthood, and they’re also relevant to harvests and may be a part of other kinds of celebrations and events. In Ejiofor’s film, they’re a motif as well as an honored inclusion of local culture. This anthropological short puts them in the spotlight.
Harvest: 3,000 Years (1976)
Haile Gerima’s Ethiopian classic might not be the easiest film to find, but it can be located in the archives at UCLA (where Gerima studied) or BFI, through which Ejiofor managed to watch it, or at festival and other special event screenings. Although you wouldn’t know it by their difference in tone and style, the black-and-white 16mm experimental-documentary-like film Harvest: 3,000 Years was one of the biggest influences on The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. The story here is specifically about a class feud between a landowner and peasants, but it’s really a portrait of the people and place and culture Gerima came from, albeit now in the midst of a civil war following the overthrow of Haile Salasee.
Speaking to The Guardian about the film and its director, Ejiofor said:
“I could watch that film every day for 1,000 years. I actually went to meet Gerima in Washington to talk with him and get his advice. He was very moved that William was stressed by the conditions of his family, and he said that was the heart of his motivation, that somehow subconsciously he was aware that these conditions were wrong, that something was broken in the expression of humanity. His motivating energy was to reconnect with what things should be.”
Distant Thunder (1973)
I knew that I wanted to recommend something by Satyajit Ray on this list, if only because he’s the first filmmaker I think of for movies about Third World rural living. Also, Ray was heavily influenced by Ejiofor’s favorite film (see below). Distant Thunder is one that’s relevant for its hardships caused by famine, and it’s also not one of his best-known works. The drama is set during World War II, specifically focused on the Bengal famine of 1943. It’s not too much of a stretch, even if the comparison is on different scales, to note that then the global war had an influence on the deadly famine while for the famine in Malawi was certainly overlooked on the world’s stage given, as is teased in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the aftermath of 9/11.
Distant Thunder, a rare color film from Ray, is about the pressures of the famine on one village and its new Brahmin and his family. Like what we see in Ejiofor’s film, here is a look at what the disaster and its resulting starvation do to people. Desperation leads to rioting, looting, killing. The once but briefly privileged Brahmin is made humble by the socially leveling conditions. It’s a far more daunting film than The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which gets close but never really reaches the kinds of stakes that should be shown in a film dealing with famine. Of course, millions died during the Bengal famine compared to hundreds in Malawi, but either way it’s a tragedy and displayed more seriously by Ray.
A Leak in the Dike (1965)
Imagine if you got Charlie Brown drunk and then had him recite the legend of the little Dutch boy who plugged up a dike with his finger. The animated short film A Leak in the Dike is like an episode of Drunk History but the storyteller is some silly child who ignorantly says things like “they got him plastered in Paris” and “gobblestone street” and — “because this is a family show” — “Amsterdarn” instead of Amsterdam. What does this ridiculous cartoon have to do with The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind? Well, Amsterdam is known for their windmills… also, the legend of the little Dutch boy who plugged up the dike is one of the most famous stories, made-up or not, about a boy saving his town through some sort of inventiveness. Watch it here:
There’s an earlier animated short film that tells the story and stars Casper the Friendly Ghost (Dutch Treat) as well as an even earlier newsreel film about the commemoration of the story in the form of erecting a statue in honor of the fictional hero. That one is called Dutch Boy at Dike is Immortalized. But Jack Mendelsohn’s A Leak in the Dike, which was unsuccessfully submitted for Oscar consideration, especially leans heavily into that fairy tale and nursery rhyme aspect of the kind of story we hear growing up regarding heroes like the Dutch Boy and William Kamkwaba, but as Ejiofor has stressed and as is obvious with his film, “there is no African fairy tale.”
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Bicycles are significant to Kamkwaba’s story, from the realization made with his teacher’s bike to the need for parts from his father’s bike at the end. But that’s not why this iconic Italian neorealist film by Vittorio De Sica is on this list. Bicycle Thieves is also Ejiofor’s other regularly cited influence on The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. In fact, it’s Ejiofor’s favorite movie, as he’s been claiming for years. He’s called it a “perfect film.” He also admitted to the Guardian that it was only later in life that he saw it in its entirety, and then again and again. In a write-up of “the film that changed my life,” he wrote:
“‘Bicycle Thieves’ now influences how I see other stories. I suppose I’ve started to measure other films and scripts against it. Thinking about it, before seeing this film I perhaps didn’t look for themes as much; I previously might have looked for good characters and a compelling story. But Bicycle Thieves taught me that a strong reliance on themes can enrich a narrative. I think about the film a lot – it’s certainly enhanced my life and I like the idea of emulating some of its qualities in my future roles.”
He’s also apparently emulating its qualities in his directorial efforts, as well. Talking about his new film, Ejiofor has specifically referenced this heartbreaking father and son drama about a man whose livelihood, in the form of his bicycle need for his work, is stolen. He told the Guardian (yeah, them again) in a recent interview:
“I started looking at Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves,’ a film that I’ve always loved. I felt like that neorealism had such a resonance for me. Post-war Italy dealing with all that poverty, that broken structure, and yet this father and son at the center of it finding this new space to communicate and express themselves was a very influential story, not to mention the bicycle at the center.”