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Chiwetel Ejiofor on Bringing African Stories to Netflix

The director of ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’ believes that all stories have Oscar relevance.

by Noel Ransome
Mar 7 2019, 4:49pm

Images courtesy of Netflix / Taylor Jewell, Shutterstock

When I ask Chiwetel Ejiofor about his new film, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, and the idea of it labelled as a TV movie—unworthy of Oscar consideration according to some—he answers “every creative should be in a room that determines what’s worthy. Let’s figure out some rules to apply that can work for everyone.”

This the stubbornly polite Chiwetel Ejiofor I know—a now 41-year-old, London born, Nigerian descended, commander of articulation who flexes his professionalism in interviews without ever breaking it.

Over a steady 20-year build up of on-screen and on-stage presence—from his earliest role with Steven Spielberg’s Amistad in 1997, to Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. Ejiofor has honed an ability to blend in through role or setting, without ever losing face with his contemporaries. Up until now, there hadn’t been a challenge the studious actor hadn’t taken on with grace, except be at the helm of his own ship.

With his film that debuted on March 1, Ejiofor chose to adapt the true life story of a 13-year-old William Kamkwamba from the African nation of Malawi, who finds an ingenious way to save his village from famine. Much of the thematics deal in the subject of economics and cultural realities of a distinct area familiar to his Nigerian heritage. In retrospect, it’s the kind of film (like Roma) that likely wouldn’t become as widely known without a Netflix backing. In speaking with Ejiofor, we covered the important relevance of cultural diversity, and why films like the The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind deserve as much credence as any other.

VICE: You could have adapted any number of stories for your directorial debut, why choose William Kamkwamba’s story?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: True. I actually read William’s story about 10 years ago when it just came out, and I was really stunned by him as a person, and this memoir which he wrote with Brian Mealer. It was so layered and textured about his home in Malawi, East Africa, and about growing up in this rural community that’s rarely depicted in this way. I was very moved by what he did, and by the circumstances by which he did it.

I remember reading these moments in his book where he begins to talk about the times he snuck into schools to learn. This relationship he had to these moments in his life that made me reflect on my own circumstances...it would have been inconceivable it would have been to be 13 and want, or need to sneak into a school. That gap and inversion to my thinking with a completely different perspective that was so rich and important for adapting the environment, dynamics and economics in East Africa. The whole thing was layered and textured more powerfully than anything else I took in at the time.

This story is as much about a father as it is about the region. How did your own upbringing inform your ideas about putting this together?
It did in a few ways actually. I was born and raised in London, but I spent time as a kid and an adult going back and forth to Nigeria, mostly to visit family and be a part of that community. When I went out into the rural sections of Nigeria..and I have to mention this, it’s very distinct...there’s is no generic village life as it’s often assumed. But there were similarities to the sights I witnessed growing up when compared to the film visuals of Malawi. I tried to bring out that texture that I hadn’t really seen represented on such an epic scale before. It was people at the center of their lives living in the complicated spaces that village life is. We normally see it depicted as simple, or an afterthought in film. But these places are complex and full of history with very specific cultural and familial relationships.

And what about the family dynamic, especially given your own relationships your father who unfortunately passed away early.
I definitely connected to that very much and wanted to cover that. It was central really. There were aspects about the father and son that I hooked into, especially the fact that my father hasn’t been with us for 30 years. It’s an evolving dynamic in my life. But honestly, it also had the feeling of universality that’s common with all family dynamics. The more I delved into that relationship between fathers, sons and communities, I saw it as universally understood. And it was suddenly more than just the going on’s in African spaces. Everyone can relate to themes that share similarities with our own communal dynamics and how we understand each other in those intimate spaces. Suddenly, there’s wider appeal to a film set within the context of a very specific place.

Right. It’s also authentic in a way that reminds me of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma . It keeps the language and setting intact. When does a detail like that become important to you?
Things like that happen over time. I’d spoken to William, and later went out to Malawi to visit him and his family. He took me around the region and allowed me to get a sense of the place. When I viewed these key locations next to the events of William’s story, I thought of how amazing it would be to have it to keep it in those original spaces. You can’t replicate that visual look. From there, it was a snowball effect that lead to the idea of it being about the chewa language and having it maintain an authenticity. Sure, there’s english, but often in places of work, school, or amongst the younger generations. My experience was to move into this space and understand the differences to my own. But it was also about seeing the similarities, wherever I, or the extended audience happens to be in the world.

I think there’s something to be said about showcasing diversity not just in skin colour, but in region and culture. I know people who view Africa as either Wakanda or a Unicef commercial.
You’re right, and I find it so vital that people and places be seen as they are and be embraced for their distinctions as they are. First of all, it’s a great gift of entertainment, to be able to showcase different points of view by inviting people from around the world into these worlds and lives in a very real way.

I have to say that I find it important because otherwise, we’re in danger of misunderstanding each other and the world as it is. That leads very easily into stereotypes and misappropriations of the things we already misunderstand you can tell. When we look at things as they are gives us a better sense of the commonalities and wonderfully rich distinctions we all have. That’s the responsibility and challenge for diversity in cinema. It’s what it’s all about...exploring different points of view in ways that benefit our cultural space.

I want to ask this as a person who has never been to Africa, but what does it mean to have a constant connection with your homeland?
Oh, it means everything! I spent a lot of time in Nigeria and I always find it to be a very rich and rooted experience. Especially since the region directly relates to my grandfather, his experiences during the Biafran War and my family who fled the region. I’ve been able to work in Ghana since I was 18, I worked in parts of South Africa, and I’ve travelled throughout the continent for a number of years. I’ve always found it to be an enriching and enlightening experience that’s just so different from Europe and America in terms of the cultural beliefs, spaces and practices. I love it when the extraordinary stories that come from the continent are given voice, and that’s constantly growing from an enriched place. Being a part of exposing that wider African diaspora, even if it’s a very small part, is a huge privilege for me as an artist and a person.

This is your directorial debut thanks to Netflix, but there’s an argument that films like yours are TV movies, and shouldn’t be considered Oscar worthy. What’s your view on that?
Well first of all, the great thing about working with Netflix is the idea of my film hitting global audiences. I really feel like I’ve made a global film here and that’s huge. That also goes for those who opt for the cinema for the limited release. I’ll say that I don’t think there’s any real doubt about what constitutes as a film period. No one is arguing that point. But the rules that people want to make for what constitutes as an Oscar winner, it feels like the creatives themselves to some degree are not a part of that conversation. It often feels that way. Every creative should be in a room that determines what’s worthy (laughs). I mean, let’s figure out some rules to apply that can work for everyone in a negotiated space. They’re all films and they all deserve to be worthy. At the moment, it’s a very distracted argument that everyone is piping up on from all these different angles. I don’t ever remember hearing a conversation about this kind of thing in terms of how things are rated, and how people should view films among the inter-nature dynamics being discussed as a forum.

More often than not, they’re discussed among business heads. And then we see those decisions filtered that create disagreements until opinions transform into a push and pull. I want to see people be constructive, and constructively let others into rooms to come up with ideas that can benefit all those involved. Then we can get into the business of being creative, and making films that can engage audiences with our best material.

Finally, what can you tell me about voicing Lion King ’s Scar?
I can tell you that it was amazing. I can’t wait to see it like everyone else. And from what I've seen, which is more or less what everyone else has seen, it's amazingly exciting and it was a great privilege for me to jump into the ring with something that's been so impactful to my youth growing up. Being able to bring that to not only my generation now but also to a whole other generation being introduced to this story in this way for the first time is amazing.

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