Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Justin Chadwick
Stars: Oliver Litondo, Naomie Harris, Alfred Munyua.
Based on the true story of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge, The First Grader tells the moving story of an 84 year-old Kenyan farmer and ex-Mau Mau freedom fighter who fights for his right to go to school.
In 2003, the Kenyan government announced a policy of free education for everyone. Illiterate 84-year old Maruge (Oliver Litondo) turns up at the local primary school demanding his right to be taught how to read and write. He has received a letter from the President, and wants to be able to read it himself. At first he is turned away by the principal (Alfred Munyua) because he has no book or pencil. When he returns with the requisite equipment, he is again turned away because he has no uniform. When he arrives in uniform, teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris, from 28 Days Later, etc) takes pity on him and admits him into the overcrowded classroom. Her decision triggers a storm of political machinations and resentment.
Africa’s history is steeped in bloodshed, and the old tribalism, ignorance, and memories of the turbulent, violent past still rear their ugly heads. Some villagers still harbour resentment about the past and are outraged Maruge taking up space in the classroom. Maruge’s determination to pursue an education became an inspiration, and encouraged a whole generation of Kenyans to pursue an education. Some embrace him as a hero and a role model, while others are reminded of his past as a warrior in the bloody struggle for independence, a past they would rather forget. Maruge was even invited to address the United Nations about the benefits of an education.
Written by Ann Peacock (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, etc), the film also deals with themes of tribalism, forgiveness, moving forward, the inability of some to forget the past, and the power of education to transform lives.
The film has been beautifully shot on location in gorgeous widescreen by cinematographer Rob Hardy, who uses the locations effectively. He draws a wonderful visual contrast between the harsh, impoverished rural areas, with their dry, dusty landscapes and dilapidated buildings, and the opulent, modern glass and concrete high rise buildings of Nairobi, the political and economic nerve centre of Kenya. It is in these comfortable air conditioned offices that bureaucrats make decisions that seem to ignore the debt that most Kenyans owe to those who made great personal sacrifices in the struggle for independence.
There are numerous flashbacks to the bloody and violent struggle to shake off the yoke of colonial rule and achieve independence. These often confronting scenes help put Maruge’s determination into context though. In those days, even an innocuous object like a pencil became a horrific instrument of torture.
The First Grader is a moving and inspiring story that was previously told in the short 2006 documentary from Sam Feuer, who acts as one of the producers here. This dramatised version of Maruge’s tale has been directed with great sensitivity and restraint by Justin Chadwick, whose credits include The Other Boleyn Girl and epic tv mini series Bleak House. There are a few missteps along the way, such as when Jane’s life is threatened, and the use of a verbose radio talk show host to underscore some of the plot points.
The film is also enhanced by the dynamic central performances of the leads. In her biggest role to date Harris is excellent, and brings sympathy and compassion to her role. She is another worthy candidate for admission into the pantheon of inspirational, positive cinematic teachers. Litondo, a former news anchorman for Kenyan television, is also affecting, and brings dignity, humour, warmth, optimism, determination and a sprightly and enthusiastic presence to his role. And the young kids, most of whom have never seen a camera before, bring a natural energy and enthusiastic presence to their roles as the schoolkids.
Produced under the auspices of National Geographic The First Grader is a fascinating and heart warming human interest tale that uses Maruge’s inspirational story as a springboard for a solid if slightly manipulative drama. Like Cry Freedom, The Power Of One, etc, it deals with Africa’s turbulent and unresolved bloody past and the power of one person to challenge the past and change a country’s outlook. Unfortunately Maruge died in 2009, before production began on his story.