Friday, May 13, 2011

The First Grader: A Compelling New Film Set in Kenya Opens Today: Friday, May 13, 2011

by Gregg Chadwick

The First Grader, a new film directed by Justin Chadwick and produced by Richard Harding and Sam Feuer, opens today May 13, 2011 in Los Angeles and New York.

Since I wrote the following review in March, I have seen the film again and attended a marvelous question and answer session with Justin Chadwick, Naomie Harris, Richard Harding and Sam Feuer. I met Justin at that event and he mentioned that people were asking him if his brother had written a review of the film. Justin and I are not knowingly related but I am sure if you follow the genetic path you will find that there is a connection somewhere in the distant past. In honor of my artistic brothers and sisters and their beautiful film, The First Grader, I am posting my thoughts on the film below.

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
Review of The First Grader by Ted Ott
Naomie Harris and Justin Chadwick Talk The First Grader

Watch the full episode. See more WETA Around Town.

"The real challenge is now—getting people into the cinema as the film has been so warmly received and supported around the world winning many audience awards. It is important that alongside the blockbusters there are stories that can inspire and audiences can experience together in the cinema. We don’‘t a huge machine on this film so I hope that people talk and tell their friends"
- Justin Chadwick (Interview w/indieWIRE.

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