On the surface, The First Grader tells a basic heartfelt story about an older man, the 84-year-old Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge, finally fulfilling a long-unresolved dream -- to learn to read. Against much prejudice and bureaucratic nonsense, he enrolls in a primary school out in the countryside with first graders to take advantage of a new law that makes primary school free and available to everyone.
Of course there are many more wrinkles to the story than just that premise. This all takes place in Kenya, a country fraught with many tribes, conservative customs and a resistance to things that rock society -- which is why the Mau Mau rebellion that eventually drove out the British in the late '50s/early '60s, took a long time to happen. Maruge had been one of those rebels and had suffered dearly for it.
British director Justin Chadwick's film reveals both the horrors that Kenyans had experienced and the beauty of this country by documenting Maruge's very human struggle here. Too often such struggles are portrayed in simplistic and cliched terms.
During an exclusive interview with the 43-year-old veteran BBC filmmaker, he tells of creating a touching story that may seem too sincere for the more cynical critics but is both affecting and worth recommending to those curious about this continent and the complex societies situated there.
Q: When did you start filming? How long did it take?
JC: Well, very short. The prep [time] was the longest thing, to listen to stories, not just with the children, but because what happened in the '50s, the records had been destroyed.
I had to listen as much as I could in the prep to the stories that were coming in. And the way the communities then started to realize I was making the film there was a certain trust, so things would come back and I would get to talk to people about their experience in the '50s. Because the colonial period, in the '60s when independence came, their first president said, "We move on from the past, we forget it."
Kenyans as much as the British, didn't know about this past. We knew about the one sided, bloody past from the Mau Mau, but we didn't know to what extent the Kenyans had really suffered. So it took a while. We started shooting I think in late October. Four or five weeks was the shoot.
Q: Why was there such a lag between The Other Boleyn Girl, your previous theatrical release, and this film?
JC: I never imagined myself doing a period piece, I really didn't. The Other Boleyn Girl started as a small movie. I'd done a lot of TV and done a miniseries, Bleak House, which was very, very fast paced. I was modernizing Dickens. So I really wanted to earn my experience before I ventured into doing features.
My feeling was you only get to make one film in England and then if you don't do a good job you're out and you don't get another chance. So I never expected that.
Then I got this little, tiny script, The Other Boleyn Girl, and thought who would I really love to work with? And I've always loved those two -- Scarlett Johansen and Natalie Portman -- and Eric [Bana], and so I just put them together, and before you knew it, it [went from being] a small BBC film and then all of sudden Sony, Universal, the whole kind of kit and caboodle.
Everybody got involved and it became this bigger film. It didn't feel like it when we were making it, it felt like this small film when we were making it, with a small team of people that I'd grown up with in my work that I'd done in England in my TV work.
David Thompson from the BBC, one of the producers who started that process [for The Other Boleyn Girl], sent me this script for The First Grader. I had never been to Kenya. I thought this was quite a simple but inspiring story and something I didn't expect coming from Africa. It wasn't issue driven; it made me feel good.
And I knew it was about children -- the hope of children and education. It was the chance to do something that was uplifting.
And there was money set up in South Africa, so I got on a plane and went to Kenya, supposed to be going to look to see if it was possible to do some [establishing shots there], then go to South Africa where we'd do the movie.
I met Maruge, the real man the film's based on when he was 89 and was in a hospice. I went in with Kikuyu guys, the same tribe as him, sat with him, talked to him, and he was completely inspiring guy.
I phoned up the BBC and said, "Listen, I've really got to stay longer." Every day I'd phone up the BBC. Although he was ill, he wanted to have his lessons, so you couldn't disturb his lessons. He was on grade five at that point. He was very sick and still demanded his teacher. This guy was amazing. Sometimes I'd have to leave and go, "All right, you've got your English teacher in."
I went around and started to look at the country and it was unbelievably beautiful. It's stunning. It's just amazing. So I said, "Look, we have to shoot it here," and with that we lost all of the budget, because there's not a perceived infrastructure in Kenya in film terms.
Q: What were the challenges of that.
JC: There have been movies made in Kenya -- Out of Africa, Tomb Raider, Constant Gardener -- but most of the films that are made there they ship everything in; the crew...
Q: ... Were from South Africa?
JC: Everywhere, all over the world. Plane loads of equipment, food, crew, everything is brought it, so Kenyans never get a chance to get into film [production] in any way. So when we lost the money I said, "We'll just go with the money that we've got. Let's just go."
Q: You then lost the South African money at that point...
JC: We lost a lot because of the decision to shoot in Kenya. The investment, the crews and all of that. We went to Kenya with nine people in the end, and the ethos was that if the talent was there we would find it, and if the talent wasn't there we would train it and incorporate it into the film.
Then there was the question of the school. I'm sure you remember your first grade at school. All those characters you meet.
Q: You think I remember my first grade?
JC: Of course you do. I bet you remember who you were sitting next to.
Q: All I remember is the crossing guard, my mom.
JC: You must remember those friends that you had at primary school.
Q: I've blotted it all out. You still remember that?
JC: I can remember them. I thought I'm going to choose one school then I am going to incorporate every child. If they want to be in this film they can be in the film. No one will be excluded, but no one will be forced to do it, and I thought in my way, although you two may be different [countries], the kids in Manchester, England can't be that different from the kids in Kenya.
Q: You're right about that.
JC: I dropped into one school. These kids were amazing. They hadn't seen a TV, have never seen a film. They were Maasai children in the main, or Kikuyu children as well, from these tribes. [They were] very shy; to even look at an adult is disrespectful. So I knew that I would have to use that as a way of...
I talked to the elders and went into school on my own and just let the children come to me. I watched them, observed them, guided the characters in the film to the children. So all of those characters, all the characters that you see in the film came out of the children I saw everyday. Like Agnes, she wasn't written in the script. I became like their teacher really.
Q: I bet your biggest moment of anxiety was finding Oliver Litondo who played Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge.
JC: Yes, that was tough.
Q: If you didn't find the right guy to play Maruge, he is the movie. Naomie Harris was reacting to him. Everybody was reacting to him, so he had to carry that movie, and you really took a risk.
JC: You are exactly like my producer David Thompson, who was on The Other Boleyn Girl with me. He kept saying, "Four weeks to go, and we don't have Maruge. If we don't have Maruge we haven't got a film."
The first thing the Kenyans said was, "You're not going to find him here. You'll never find him." And we went on a goose chase around the world, England, here, Paris, you can imagine.
We went all over to try and find Maruge. We got close to a couple of guys. There was this beautiful actor in Paris that we met who basically, just couldn't pass his medical.
He was so old, and that was a lot of the problems. So we went back to Kenya on my second trip there I was going, "Okay guys, forget an actor. I know that there's not going to be this amazing actor, experienced actor sitting in Kenya that we don't know about." There isn't the kind of TV or film industry there that would generate that kind of actor. I do not speak Swahili, but if I could...
Q: And they have another language as well; Maasai is the other one.
JC: Swahili, Kikuyu, and Maasai. But the real Maruge would have spoken Kikuyu in the main. That's why I was with Kikuyu guys when I went to meet him in the hospital and talk to him. That's where he started opening up to me.
Q: You can't do it in the wrong language.
JC: No, and also, he would never have told me about his wife, about this bond he had to the land. He made that bond; he was 89. They never [broke him], the British, you know. He wouldn't utter a word of that oath; he still carried that at 89.
Then someone on the crew said, "I know this guy. He was a news anchor and my parents talk about him in the '70s." So we managed to track Oliver down, and word got to him. He didn't have a phone or anything so someone went in his village up to his house, and he'd fallen on real hard times. He got on a bus -- this is incredible -- he got on this bus, six hours later he met me in [Nairobi], and he looked really whacked, poor guy. But as soon as I met him he was like...
Q: How old is Oliver now?
JC: He would never tell his age. But when we met him he looked like he'd fallen on hard times, he was having a tough time. Then he got his suit and looked fantastic. He went to his doctor, got through his medical [exam], thank god; the doctor put him on a strict diet and sorted his eyes -- he had problems with his eyes.
I just knew as soon as I met him that the kids would love him. Inside and out he's a beautiful man, this guy. He's so eloquent the way he talks about education. You can see it in his face, can't you?
He was not experienced as an actor, and sometimes I'd be talking to him off camera while we were doing the scenes just to talk him through stuff, and you could just see it in him.
Q: Were those all lines he was saying were memorized and hw knew how to say them?
JC: Sometimes it was. Sometimes we improvised. Sometimes we let scenes role, like for example, the scene with the little girl. The little Agnes girl was the quietest, shyest girl. She was the one the teacher said, "Oh no."
Her mom and dad were trying to hide her from coming to school because her legs, she had small legs, she's got a prosthetic. She was at the back of the class so she was behind; the children were very, very shy, but she was particularly shy in the corner. [She] wouldn't come to me for a long, long time, and that was the child that I thought was the best to bond with Maruge.
Q: The boy we sitting with Oliver getting shown how to make a "5"; didn't he bond with Maruge?
JC: He was from another school because, amazingly, in that school the concept of bullying didn't exist for some reason. I got to know all the children, all the characters, and it just wasn't in the children that were there. It wasn't in their comprehension.
I was like, "You're joking, come on! There must be some sort of..." and they just couldn't get that. So I had to bring somebody else from another school into that environment, and he came in and it worked for the character for the film.
Q: The DVD should have some of this other material on it.
JC: I recorded every meeting I had with Maruge. The last thing he did was sing me a song about his life. Often when I was with him, because it was with these guys that he was speaking his first language, Kikuyu, as well as English, I was with Kikuyu men. These men would turn round, these are Kikuyu where [it is rare] to show any emotion [to someone] you don't know as a man, and these guys were like, the tears streaming. That's where the power of the pen came from. All of those quotes came directly from him, how he talked about his wife, and his children.
Q: Finding Maruge was such a challenge but how did Naomie fit into that process? Because you and Naomie are both of English descent. how did it affect both of you and how did she become the obvious choice?
JC: She was the first choice.
Q: Was she was always there?
JC: She wasn't always there. When I read the script the very first time before I'd been to Kenya, Africa or South Africa, I thought of Naomie because I love her work. She's subtle, she's got good heart the way she talks about her work. I know she's a good woman, and I love the way that she's a chameleon. She's got a great body of work behind her. It's not obvious acting with her but she really inhabits her characters. So she was the first person that I thought of for the role.
Q: It's good to have a seasoned actor as the anchor.
JC: At that time the character was written as a 53 year old who had two children.
Q: Was that the reality?
JC: Yeah, that was the reality. Then when I went to Kenya, I was very, very keen on going around the schools. I was seeing young Kenyan women struggling with professional and home life, and family, when to have kids, when not to have kids, could you do the two things, and culturally, what that meant to those young women.
So I thought to make her younger, as an inspiring role model to other people and inspiring to the children -- and Naomie stuck with me.
Q: You're British and are making a movie about what the British did to these people -- it must have had a strange resonance. There's a lot of brutality in British history.
JC: I am amazed and ashamed that the British do not know this side of history. I did not know. It's not history learned in school.
I knew about the brutality of the colonials, we all know that, but [it was] the scale of what went on in Kenya, and we didn't know that they destroyed the records afterwards. But what was really surprising was that the Kenyans didn't know. The Kenyan crew didn't know.
And just the way that we made the film. The guy who plays the Mau Mau leader, he went back and talked to his parents. He then went to his grandparents and over five or six weeks, the parents started to come out. They had been in those camps.
That music he's singing at that point in the film is music that directly goes back to those camps and his grandparents. It was a voyage for all of us really, the Kenyans as well. That's why it was the most humbling, amazing thing that I've ever done, and was the best thing I've ever done. Every day these amazing things would happen.
Q: You see a movie like this and wonder, will the audiences come out to see a movie about Africa? What made you believe it will click with audiences?
JC: That's the difficult, hard thing, and there has to be. We showed this film at [Telluride], we went to Toronto, we've shown it at some great festivals throughout the U.S. and the world, and audiences have just connected with it. If audiences get into the cinema and see it they will go through this emotional, moving, funny, uplifting story that is challenging but also celebrates life.
Surely, there has to be a space for films like this. The production values are really strong; it's made as a piece of cinema, to be enjoyed in the cinema. I was very careful to shoot it with the cinema in mind so that audiences could go and see it on the big screen. It's stunningly beautiful. We've placed the camera so that it catches these fantastic shots of truth from these children who have never acted before.
Alongside the blockbusters that have the machinery behind them of publicity and money, there has to be a place for audiences to go to see different stories. Stories that they wouldn't have known but also still have great production values, fantastic performances, and a different story that isn't the usual thing that we haven't seen, and there has to be a place for that.
People say to me, "What was the toughest thing in making the film?" There was nothing tough about making the film. It was the easiest thing because everything just rolled into place. If we had any kind of hurdle, as the money, we'd just go and do it in another way, never impacting on what was up on the screen.
The challenge now is for word of mouth. And fortunately, in these festivals that it's been to, and when it's screened, it wins all the audience awards.
Q: It's definitely an audience award winner.
JC: Because people love to go into the dark, I'm sure of it, and celebrate these stories.
For more by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com