Thursday, March 31, 2011

The First Grader: A Compelling New Film Set in Kenya

by Gregg Chadwick

The First Grader, a new film directed by Justin Chadwick and produced by Richard Harding and Sam Feuer, has been gathering cinema festival awards as it moves towards a May 2011 release. This week The First Grader won the award for best feature film at the Palm Beach Film Festival.

I recently attended a pre-release screening of this poignant and numinous movie set in the Rift Valley in the mountains of Kenya. The First Grader, like Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, seamlessly combines story and place to create an illuminating beacon for our time.

The First Grader portrays the story of Kimani Maruge, an 84 year old Mau Mau veteran who helped liberate Kenya from the British. After the Kenyan government announced in 2003 that free schooling would be offered for all, Maruge, played marvelously by Kenyan actor Oliver Litondo, arrives at a primary school to finally get his chance at an education - long denied under oppressive colonial rule and unavailable to him since independence.

As the story unfolds, the realities of rural Kenyan life intermix with Maruge's traumatic memories of torture, incarceration, and the murder of his loved ones, which he endured steadfastly for the sake of freedom. These very real scenes make a powerful emotional impact but with a remarkable reverence, a profound sense of calling and self respect despite injustice. There is an artistic elegance to this film that combines truth telling with transcendence.

The First Grader, based on a true story, uses a school full of actual Kenyan pupils playing themselves. Oliver Litondo (Maruge) explains that high up in the Rift Valley "education is coming in as a new thing." The youngsters were not surprised to see an older student, there was already a fifteen year old in a class of six year olds, so the students accepted Maruge as one of them - just another student seeking an education like they were. Shared goals and shared experiences create a bond between the young students and Maruge.

There are also important shadow elements in the story written by screenwriter Ann Peacock. The First Grader deftly covers the post World War II history of Kenya: moving back and forth from Maruge's struggle against British rule to his struggle against tribal prejudice and mistrust of his motives in 21st century Kenya. By combining traditional Kenyan music with his own compositions, composer Alex Heffes creates a rich sonic landscape.

The film, compellingly crafted by cinematographer Rob Hardy, opens with a gaggle of school children running through mist shrouded trees to their isolated but beckoning new school. On this first day of the new term hundreds of children and their parents jostle to find a place. The exuberance of youth contrasts with the dogged strength of Kimani Maruge and the desperate drive of parents struggling to gain a coveted spot at school for their child.

Naomie Harris plays teacher Jane Obinchu who grows to support Maruge's fierce drive to learn. The joy of learning and the bond between teacher and students is so evident in The First Grader that while watching the film, I felt as if the audience was compelled to grab a sharpened pencil and join the class.

The First Grader is a transcendent human story about confronting injustice and achieving redemption. The film spreads balm for old wounds and lifts the spirit with hope for the future. The First Grader is highly recommended.

More at:
The First Grader Website

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