The Bottom Line
Crowd-pleasing subject is viewed through a narrow lens.
South By Southwest, Documentary Competition
AUSTIN — When the story of Malawi teenager William Kamkwamba — who responded to being too poor for school by teaching himself how to build an electricity-generating windmill for his family — hit the West, it was inevitable that the inspiring young man would attract the interest of people desperate to embrace signs of hope in Africa. Their generosity wasn’t an unmitigated blessing, as Ben Nabors finds in , a doc whose focus on the results of fame, however hopeful, may disappoint many who’d rather hear nothing but the happy side of the tale.
Spending little time setting the scene of Kamkwamba’s childhood and milking drama from a quest neighbors thought was crazy (, a memoir co-authored by Bryan Mealer, tells that tale), essentially starts with the young man’s exposure at a 2007 TED talk, where conference regular Tom Rielly decided to get involved in his life.
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Aware that many global do-gooders use up their energy in a quick burst of enthusiasm, then move on and leave their impoverished beneficiaries floundering, Rielly promised to give Kamkwamba seven years. He became all but a surrogate parent — from dispensing life advice and fielding Hollywood story-rights offers to helping the young man move into his freshman dorm at Dartmouth.
If the movie sometimes seems too interested in Rielly, that’s at least partly because he’s a chatterbox compared to his protege, a modest youth who isn’t in a rush to say what’s on his mind. Though we witness the stress Kamkwamba faces — at the elite pan-African high school he’s dramatically underprepared to attend; on a U.S. book tour requiring non-stop gladhanding — Nabors isn’t as adept at probing his subject’s mixed emotions as a more experienced documentarian might have been. realizes it’s looking at something more than a happily-ever-after tale, but isn’t able to flesh out the more complicated narrative underneath.
Still, the film does augment an out-of-poverty story Americans may have felt could be put aside safely. It may have few answers to share, but at least it knows the West’s responsibility to those who might become world-changers doesn’t end with making them celebrities and leaving them to fend for themselves.