When you think about documentary films, it’s probably the unyielding outrage of films like The Cove, Bowling for Columbine, and Waiting for Superman, films that attack problems and focus on real-world solutions, that comes to mind. What’s sometimes overlooked, though, is the genre’s ability to communicate moral sensitivity. William and the Windmill, directed and produced by Ben Nabors, tells the story of William Kamkwamba, a young windmill inventor from Malawi who at the age of 14 teaches himself how to generate electricity by building a windmill from scrap parts. The film shows William faced with a new set of challenges that arise largely from the incredible media attention and goodwill that his project generates. It neither celebrates nor condemns this period in his life; rather, it investigates a liminal space that, explored by a lesser artist, might leave you feeling dulled to the world you have entered. But Nabors thrives in such space—William’s world brims with palpable moral energy. “Some filmmakers are essayists, and construct great work by following a pre-existing argument,” he says. “I’m not good at that. I believe that my best and most meaningful footage comes from a perspective of confident curiosity. Ignorance, even. Assumptions can get in the way.”
Nabors, 32, is currently working on two documentaries—one about graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister and his pursuit of happiness, the other about the tumultuous staging of Spider-Man on Broadway—as well as developing a short film he co-wrote and produced, Palimpsest, into a feature. The film, which won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, concerns a man who helps people thrive in their living spaces using a method that is part feng shui, part interior design, part behavioral therapy. Says Nabors: “Through a character that’s so sensitive to the unseen, we get an opportunity to look at the subtle forces at play in people’s lives and choices.”
Nabors could be talking about himself.
Joshua Neuman is the editorial director at GOOD.
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Joshua Neuman served as Editor of Heeb Magazine between 2004 and 2010 and of FLAUNT from 2011 to 2012. He is currently at work on a short film about his late brother, Jonathan, called "Johnny Physical Lives."