Last night I attended a screening of the documentary William and the Windmill at the Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota campus. The film was presented as a part of the Public Interest Design week. The film is about William Kamkwamba. Kamkwamba was raised in rural Malawi. After a drought year, income from his family’s corn crop was not large enough to pay tutition for Kamkwamba to go to school. Forced to drop out and with little to occupy his drive to learn, William began to visit the local library where he found a book on generating electricity. In this book he saw a picture of a windmill, and was inspired to build one when he realized how it might help his family.
Kamkwamba’s story got out, and eventually Tom Rielly the Community Director for TED heard about him and brought him to a TED Global conference. Rielly appoints himself mentor to Kamkwamba and guides him to a book deal, high school in South Africa, and college at Dartmouth. The documentary tells the story of Kamkwamba’s rise to fame and of Tom and William’s relationship.
The film is smart and incredibly well done because it is aware of the fate that can easily befall a documentary of this genre. The film could have easily been a cheesy tale of the underdog overcoming adversity and finding success. Instead, the filmmakers problematize this narrative that we know so well, and ask difficult questions about exactly how Kamkwamba rose to fame.
The uncomfortable truth is that a white guy from America was largely responsible for Willam’s success on the world stage. Rielly becomes something of a father figure to William, helping him to maneuver the world of Western modernity. The filmmakers raise questions about Rielly’s paternalism and the white man’s burden. There is a poignant scene where Rielly is explaining a contract for the movie rights to William’s life to him. Rielly tells him that the contract is fine, and encourages him to sign it. Kamkwamba is obviously uncomfortable with it, and attempts to delay signing it. Later the filmmakers interview Kamkwamba sans Rielly, and he admits that he was uncomfortable with the contract.
The filmmakers pull everything off with an impressively delicate touch. No one is the bad guy or the good guy, and everyone is portrayed as a well meaning human being. One of the audience members at the screening I attended even commented that they didn’t like the film because they thought it focused too much on Rielly’s actions rather than Kamkwamba’s story. I assume that this viewer missed the filmmakers’ intent, but her reaction indicates the success they had in not making any overt judgments on the characters and their motivations.
It was refreshing to see a documentary of this genre (feel good world saving?) take such an evenhanded approach to the topic. Documentary films have become a major medium that American society discovers and learns about social issues. Many filmmakers opt for black and white morality in an attempt to bring viewers on board for their cause. The genre of food system documentaries is a particularly good example of this phenomenon. Documentaries like Food, Inc. have done much good work to inform people about problems within the American food system, but they fail their viewers by presenting simplistic analyses of their topic. William and the Windmill shows that you can make a feel good (i.e. not cynical) documentary that respects the complexity of the topic.