William and the Windmill

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You might never meet a more wonderful human being than William Kamkwamba.

Sometimes when I introduce a movie before a crowd, it’s nerve-wracking. The microphone might not work properly, or people in the crowd are talking louder than you are. You’re always calmer if there’s somebody else with you, too.

It’s also better if the theatre is full. You can just look out at the crowd as you talk.

A few months ago I introduced a documentary followed by a Q&A with the cast. There were only 15 people in the audience, and seven of them were the filmmakers. It’s awkward to look at each specific person as you’re trying to talk about the film.

So I was happy that for a 2:00 p.m. screening of William and the Windmill on Friday afternoon, it was almost a full house at the Cinepolis in Carlsbad. I was also happy that the crowd was treated to a good documentary, courtesy of the La Costa Film Festival.

William Kamkwamba wasn’t the regular 14-year-old you hear about that drops out of school. He lives in Malawi, South Africa, and his family needed his help at home. The parents work their crops, and probably didn’t realize that having William around the house would be so beneficial. He had a thirst to learn even when he wasn’t in school, and often borrowed his friends notes. Figuring that wasn’t enough, he started collecting books. He read one about how windmills can be used for power, and he decided to build one with the various scraps he would find in his neighborhood. It reminded me of crop artist Stan Herd (the movie Earthwork was based on his life).

The windmill William built delivered power to his family’s property, and a few years later at the TED Conference (where the world’s leading thinkers gather), he got to share that story. This led him to having publishers engage in a bidding war for the book rights. It also afforded him the opportunity to go back to school, this time at a prestigious academy. He graduated, and went on to Dartmouth. I immediately flashed back to my year at SDSU, in a crappy apartment with a fan that was missing one of the blades. If only a person like this would’ve been my roommate.

The first half of the movie is one of the best experiences you’ll have watching a documentary. To see the opportunities that open up to this ambitious and intelligent young man…is a thrill. Even the subtle things are great. The way he glances at his grandfather, and asks why he’s using the children’s book pages for rolled cigarettes. The grandfather replies, “They were done reading them.”

We get to see William go in an elevator for the first time, as well as a swimming pool. Watching the joy he’s experiencing as he travels around the world is made more fun when he shows his friends back home the photos on his computer. It’s a fabulous journey.

We also see some of the things he’s built in his small town: A water pump made from an old bicycle frame; using old flip-flops for light switches in his old school.

There’s that expression “It takes a village…” and watching the village come together to build the new school that William is instrumental in developing is so heartwarming.

There comes a point in the middle of the movie where we see William a bit conflicted. Everyone seems to want something from him and at first, he seems to have a good approach with how he handles it all. He looked at the camera and said that he tries to figure out if it’s something the person needs or if it’s just a luxury item they want. Unfortunately, the entire second half of the movie just becomes a bit of a downer.

One guy leaving the film stopped me and said, “I liked it, but…did you find yourself less happy as the movie went on?”

I did, and that bothered us both. Perhaps director Ben Nabors wanted the narrative to be such that we see this young man struggling to find his place in the world or being home sick. We see him have a cute flirtation with a woman at one point. Perhaps he’s longing for a love life. Maybe William is just a bit more introspective and guarded as he got older. Yet even Tom Rielly, the guy so instrumental in bringing William from TED into the successful life he’s having, seems to be down about things. It’s  hard to figure out why. Rielly explains that he didn’t have the best childhood and is working on issues of his own, but it’s still a bummer. The joy we had watching the first half of the movie keeps slipping away.

It’s a good documentary, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from William Kamkwamba in the future. As the host of an NPR show said in an interview with him, “This is like meeting an Einstein or somebody.”

It gets 3 ½ stars out of 5.

There are still other interesting movies, documentaries, and shorts going on all weekend at the La Costa Film Festival. For more info: http://lacostafilmfestival.org/

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