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Saturday, June 22, 2013

BAMcinemaFest 2013: Q&A with Ben Nabors

by Claire Frisbie

In 2001, Malawian teenager William Kamkwamba built a windmill from scrap metal and a worn out tractor blade, bringing electricity to his town of sixty families. This caught the eyes of the TEDGlobal conference, and specifically an American entrepreneur named Tom Rielly, who took William under his wing and transformed him into a media darling with a bestselling memoir, a movie deal, and a scholarship to Dartmouth.

In his beautifully shot documentary William and the Windmill, Brooklyn filmmaker Ben Nabors follows William and Tom for five years, focusing less on William's initial accomplishment and more on his subsequent growth and struggles, and the crucial role Tom has played throughout. Through interviews with William, Tom, William's family, teachers, and others, the film touches upon numerous issues surrounding activism and aid in developing countries, Western interpretations of success, and the complicated pressures and expectations that come with fame.

William and the Windmill received the SXSW Grand Jury Prize for best documentary, and screens this Saturday at BAMcinemaFest at 1:30pm. Nabors will participate in a Q&A following the screening.

1. When and how did you come to know you wanted to make movies?
I always wanted to make movies but I never considered it to be a realistic option. Making movies seemed too far-fetched, or too fantastic. I grew up in a small town, and that probably checked my aspirations a bit; people didn't make movies where I lived. Storytelling, in the general sense, seemed like a more tangible goal, so I spent my time writing rather than using the family camcorder. When I moved to New York in 2004, filmmaking was more of a reality.

Ben Nabors
Photo: Robin Holland (
2. What would you be doing if you weren't a filmmaker?
I would be telling stories, some other way. I would be writing.

3. What are some of the challenges you faced while making your film, both artistic and logistical?
I feel like it's easier to answer the question: "when do you not face challenges making an independent documentary film?" That answer would be shorter. 

Early in the life of this movie, a great filmmaker told me, "when you make your first film, you eat it." That is true, and remains true, even after you finish your first film. Documentary, if done well, is real life. And real life is hard.

4. Talk about your favorite movie of the past two or three years.
The Act of Killing is probably the best documentary I've seen recently. I didn't even want to speak after that film was over. I felt like I'd watched a moon landing, or a pyramid being built. It was courageous, disgusting, profound, and sickening. That movie is a grand human accomplishment --- too hard to explain with anything less than the time and the footage that the filmmaker used to tell his story. 

I also liked The Master, for similar reasons.

5. Are you working on a new project now?
I'm currently producing two documentaries that are in the late stages of editing, as well as writing a narrative feature. In The Happy Film, graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister develops a series of self-experiments to see if he can make himself happier; along the way, life unexpectedly happens.  For the past three years, I've been collaborating with director Jacob Cohl on a behind-the-scenes documentary about Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark, which tells the complex story of the most expensive Broadway show in history. And, earlier this year I had a narrative short at Sundance called Palimpsest. It won a Special Jury Prize, and myself and director Michael Tyburski are now developing that short into a feature script.

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