Chiwetel Ejiofor On His Latest Film: 'There Is No Fairy Tale Africa'

Chiwetel Ejiofor image by Suki Dhanda/The Observer via London Guardian


On 1 March, Netflix will release the film The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, based on the 2009 bestselling book I wrote with William Kamkwamba. The film, written and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, premiered at the Sundance film festival in late January. It tells the story of how William, then 14, was forced to drop out of school during a deadly famine that struck Malawi in 2000-2001. As his family and neighbors slowly starved, he found refuge in a local library, where he discovered books that inspired him to build a series of windmills from tractor and bicycle partsto produce electricity for his village, and to eventually pump water. After speaking at the TED Global conference in 2007, William was able to return to school and later graduated from Dartmouth College.

In 2010, after the book’s release, William and I sold the film rights to Chiwetel, who is Nigerian and had grown up visiting his family in villages much like William’s. Chiwetel would go on to star in many films over the next decade, including 12 Years a Slave, which earned him best actor at the British Academy Film Awards along with an Oscar nomination for best actor. This week, I spoke with Chiwetel on the phone in London, where he was fresh off the Berlin international film festival, to discuss his directorial debut.

How did you first come across  The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind?

I was living in Los Angeles at the time and a friend had attended your book party and told me about it. I was just stunned by it, really. It was clear it was operating on several different levels with a very determined humility to it and this real sense of time and place and authenticity and a very lived-in sense of the world. There was no fairy tale Africa, or the other side, the nightmare Africa.

When I met William in 2007, I’d just finished reporting the war in the Congo for three years, so I’d been engrossed in that nightmare version, even contributed to it. That’s why his story was so refreshing to me – it really captured the resourcefulness and tenacity you see every day on that continent, in addition to the mundane.

Right. It dealt with Malawi and those deep family dynamics in a real way, and it was a space that I recognized. Look, there is no generic Africa. Nigeria is different from Malawi but there were connections and similarities that I recognized. I felt it would be powerful to tell a story that was honest about the challenges and the triumphs of a place.

The book is very much a father and son story. I know you lost your own father when you were 11 in a car crash while visiting Nigeria, an accident in which you were also severely injured. Looking at your childhood there seems to be some parallels – or at least an understanding of what may have drawn you to the story. Is that accurate?
Most of my childhood was spent in London, but we visited family a lot. Over a period of years, I understood the dynamics enough to be intrigued by the villages.

We’d spend time in Enugu, but I was aware of the rich cultural spaces the villages represented, this real complex and nuanced space where generations of families lived. You’re trying to keep up with everyone, and at some point, you realize that this square mile you’re standing in is all of you, and it’s deeply connected to your sense of place in the world. It’s the wellspring from which all things have happened in your family’s life. I also knew that from an outside perspective it probably looked very simple and impoverished. So there was something about that that resonated, that connected the book to my family and wanting to explore their experience.

And there was also that dynamic between father and son that I immediately hooked into, my relationship to my father and the fact that he hasn’t been with us in 30 years. It’s still an evolving relationship and it still has a strong space in my life. Those were big themes that jumped out from the book.

After your father’s death your mother started the Brightland International Academy in Enugu, which educates underprivileged kids, a school that you’re still very involved with today … William’s story was perfect for you.
It was perfect, but I also loved it because William’s story also lives in the solution, in the brighter future. People can identify and find solutions for their own issues, as opposed to being presented as victims everyone else is going to help. We’ve tried it that way, this paternalistic way, and it’s disempowering.

I love how the movie, which has an entirely black cast, has allowed you to talk about diversity in film. Throughout your career, you’ve come back to Africa – playing Patrice Lumumba in the play A Season in the Congo at London’s Young Vic, starred in the adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, addressed apartheid in Endgame and Red Dust, and now you’re directing this film …

There are epic stories to be told there. I’ve always been excited by the combination of these western traditions of cinema and these epic stories in Africa. There’s always been an overlap that’s been rarely explored. There’s a rich narrative landscape for people to embrace and fall in love with.

The film is shot entirely in William’s village in Wimbe. Because of that, you were able to accomplish a rare feat – realistically portray African village life, which doesn’t make it into western living rooms that often.

Right, that day to day living. How you get up in the morning, how you have a shower [laughs]. People don’t have a context for that because they’re seeing Africa in these headline-ish ways and they lose the connection to people who are just doing normal things and have the same desires as them. It’s important to take the audience into this private space.

You mentioned somewhere that one of your first references before making the film were the impressionist painters, and how they’d managed to capture these peasants in rural, impoverished France with such romanticism, scope, and beauty. Any other inspirations?

I stated looking at Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, a film that I’ve always loved. I felt like that neo-realism 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.

Another major influence was Haile Gerima and his film Harvest: 3,000 Years. Released in 1977, it’s about the famine in Ethiopia. I couldn’t find it anywhere and finally the British Film Institute had a copy they screened for me. 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.

You famously learned to play violin for the role of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. For The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, you and several others in the cast had to learn Chichewa during the 37 days on location. Which was easier, learning violin or Chichewa?

[Laughs] Chichewa. Violin is complex. It’s not that complicated to look like you kind of know what you’re doing, but it’s extremely complicated to look like you really know what you’re doing.