HotDocs13: William and the Windmill (2013)

In 2007, William Kamkwamba built a windmill from scratch. He needed a way to bring electricity to his home in Malawi, irrigate his crops, and pump water. A windmill was the solution. Armed with nothing but his own resourcefulness and a book from the library, William built the windmill, impressing the world and drawing attention to himself on a global level. He was invited to give a TED Talk and met Tom Rielly, who made it his mission to support William. William and the Windmill is the story of William’s journey to the global stage.

Ben Nabors’ documentary follows William's various endeavours in the time between building his first windmill and heading off to Dartmouth University. It’s a personal film and maintains a tight focus on William as an inventive young man whom the world has deemed a hero. The only talking head in the film is Rielly, who gives well meaning but often deluded justifications for helping William. William and the Windmill neither condemns nor praises Rielly’s actions. The film is modest, shying away from making a definitive statement about how to “help” people in the developing world. It simply tells a story and presents the many socio-political facets that that story is comprised of.

William is a fascinating figure: he’s creative, he’s smart, he’s polite. He tries to seem grateful, but so often his eyes betray him. Nabors smartly lets the camera rest on William’s face, which gives the answers to the questions William never comes out and answers. It is clear that William is exhausted and made anxious by the constant attention. In one scene he explains his desire to be treated as just another guy. He is an individual stuck between the world of his family, the difficult but familiar life of his ancestors, working the family farm and helping out his village, and the world of the West with all its supposed promises of opportunity.

William and the Windmill is a great documentary because it’s not limited in its scope. By telling the focused, fascinating story of this brilliant young man, it manages to capture the universal tension between the developed and developing world.

William and the Windmill (2013)

Directed by Ben Nabors.

9 out of 10