Uplifting and Universal: Justin Chadwick and The First Grader

Oliver Litondo as Maruge, an 84-year-old first-grader.
Oliver Litondo as Maruge, an 84-year-old first-grader.
Courtesy of the filmmakers

When the Hollywood machine gets behind filming on location, Hollywood gets flown to the location--shipping in everything from cast and crew to equipment and catering.

But to create his film The First Grader director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) arrived in Africa with fewer than 10 people and adjusted the film to the landscape.

"I didn't want to exclude anybody," he says. "There was a thought I'd have to cast all over Africa for the 'hero class,' but I didn't, I chose one school."

The film follows the uplifting true story of an 84-year-old man, Maruge (Oliver Litondo), who, upon hearing that the government is offering free education for all Kenyans, attempts to enroll in the first grade to learn how to read. He's met with resistance, but eventually a teacher (Naomi Harris) admits him to her classroom.

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Chadwick found a school in an isolated village in the Great Rift Valley, he says, where most of the children had never even seen a movie or television. To get a more authentic performance from the children, Chadwick originally went into their classroom without a camera, taking time for the kids to get used to his presence, but also taking time to observe how they interacted with one another.

"I'm sure you remember your class in first grade, I remember mine," he says. "There's every character of life there, so I went on my own and observed them and saw how they were in the classroom, how they were in the playground, and then adapted their characters to the film's characters."

It's an unusual method of filmmaking, one that echoes the trend in eco-tourism, where one takes only photos and leaves only footprints. But Chadwick says that he wanted people to have a different perception of Africa: One filled with hope and humor.

"It was important that we make a film that wasn't about genocide or tribal conflict or have a huge production like Out of Africa," he says. "But it is a universal story, an uplifting and a moving story."

As Maruge progresses in school, it's revealed through flashbacks that he was once a Mau Mau freedom fighter, held in a detention camp by the British in the 1960s. But the flashbacks are puzzle pieces, connecting us to the present and eventually revealing Maruge's purpose behind his stubborn quest to become literate.

Chadwick, an Englishman, says he felt it was an important film to make in order to make people aware of the atrocities committed by the British authorities in Kenya, something he calls an unknown history.

"I think it was a story that needed to be told that dealt with the past of the two countries," he says.

"We have only seen one side of that history--that the Mau Mau were out of control and murdering people in their beds--that was what was put in the papers," he says. "But people were murdered, incarcerated, tortured in detention camps by the British."

In 1963, he says, records of the imprisonments were destroyed, and when Kenya became independent, its mission was to move on from the past--causing the history of the imprisonments to be forgotten. Making the film, he says, started an epidemic of remembrance in his crew, made up of native Kenyans.

"Members of the crew started to go back to their families and ask questions of their parents and grandparents about what had happened, and they with these stories from family members who, their whole life, had not talked about it," he says.

With luck, he says, more people will be talking about it soon. The film is out today in Houston, and has been featured at several international film festivals, including Toronto, Telluride and London. Chadwick, who relied on the Hollywood machine to promote The Other Boleyn Girl, is hitting the road himself to publicizeThe First Grader, which has a smaller budget and less name recognition.

"There has to be a place for films like this, "Chadwick says. "Films that are harder to make and that tell a different story and that are from a different part of the world. There has to be a place, doesn't there?"

The First Grader is now playing at Greenway Palace 24, 3839 Weslayan Street.


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