Movie Review: The First Grader
The First Grader
Rating: 3 out of 5
Starring: Naomie Harris,
Playing in English and Kikuyu with English subtitles at: AMC cinema
Parents’ guide: Disturbing scenes of arrest and torture.
MONTREAL – AIDS. Drought. Starvation. Violence. Corruption.
So often, in the news and in the movies, the “dark continent” of Africa is portrayed as a crucible of despair. But in the new British drama The First Grader, set in rural Kenya, Africa is a place of hope.
So rich are the possibilities there, in fact, a primary school can take in a new student who’s – get this – 84 years old. Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge is his name, and he’s the hero of the story. In the movie based on his life, he’s played by Oliver Litondo, a Kenyan making his debut in a lead role.
His teacher, Jane Obinchu, is played by British actress Naomie Harris, most familiar to audiences as the priestess Tia Dalma in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
“So many films about Africa are about poverty or genocide or what have you, but there are so many other stories there to be told,” Harris, 34, said last week from Toronto, where she’d flown in to promote the film’s commercial release (it also screened at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival).
“That’s what I love about this film. It’s great to have an uplifting story like this, with its universal message of learning from the old and of the importance of education.”
Not that the film is a breeze to sit through. It repeatedly flashes back to the arrest, imprisonment and torture Maruge suffered under the British in the 1950s, when he was part of the Mau Mau rebellion against colonial rule. Though shot tastefully (by Rob Hardy), with the camera going in and out of focus and cutting away for the more brutal bits, the scenes are disturbing enough to make the movie unsuitable for young kids.
The rest is rather picturesque, the kind of beautiful depiction of hardship synonymous with National Geographic, whose entertainment arm produced the film with the BBC and Los Angeles-based Sixth Sense Productions.
In real life, Maruge shot to fame in 2004 when news of his enrolment as the oldest person ever to start primary school – a Guinness World Record – made headlines in Kenya and around the world.
His fame would carry him the following year to the United Nations in New York City, where he gave a speech advocating free primary education. The address was his swansong. Maruge died of cancer in 2009, age 89.
The First Grader embellishes his story, and its pedigree is as bicultural as the two entities – Britain and Africa – that produced and shaped its protagonist.
The film is directed by a Briton: Justin Chadwick, who did The Other Boleyn Girl. And the screenplay is by a South African: Ann Peacock, who did the first Chronicles of Narnia movie, as well as Kit Kittredge: An American Girl.
It also has its heart in the right place – both on and off screen.
As part of their goal of benefiting the community they shot in, the film’s director and producers not only put in running water, electricity, a new roof and new windows for the school they used, Oloserian Primary School. They also set up charities for that school and the one across the road, Masai Plainview Primary School, where some of the film’s pupils were recruited. A charity was also set up for the Rift Valley community the students call home.
“And everyone got paid,” Harris said, “all the children and all the parents.”
Harris knows Africa herself. She has friends in Nigeria and shot two films on the continent. One was her 2002 debut, Anansi, a small independent German movie shot in Ghana. The other was Blood and Oil, a BBC drama shot last year in South Africa.
As the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, the actress – who’s fresh off a run in Danny Boyle’s staging of Frankenstein at the National Theatre in London – is also very much aware of her native Britain’s history of slave-trading and colonialism in countries with majority black populations.
But before shooting The First Grader, she had never been to East Africa, least of all a remote part of the Kenyan bush where outsiders were rare, the schools overpopulated and the locals impoverished.
“I got to pass myself off as a new teacher and teach a class of 80 children,” recalled Harris, who was hired only two weeks before making the trip. “It was a brilliant challenge that I just couldn’t pass up.”
Working with the kids – all non-actors chosen from the community – was her biggest challenge.
“They were so obedient, so respectful of teachers and adults that it made it very difficult for them to misbehave in class and come out of themselves and let their personalities shine,” Harris said.
“As time went on, they learned to trust me and start to come out of their shells, which is what the film really needed, because they are the heart of the film.”
She has stayed in touch with them.
“We’re penpals,” Harris said. “And we’re going back in June to show them the film at an open-air screening – an edited version, with the violent sections taken out.”
And with that, the circle that began with her hiring will be complete.
“The whole ethos of the film was very much about giving back to the community,” Harris said.
“So many films are made that exploit the community and the local environment, and the people who make them think it’s OK, because they made a beautiful movie.
“That didn’t happen with this movie. It was about involving people, keeping them involved and having them gain from the experience,” she said, adding that it also changed her views on poverty in Africa.
“I came away thinking those people have so much: an incredible sense of community, a real appreciation of living in the moment. They have a joy and a vitality that we lack.”
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