He is known simply as Maruge. As younger man he was tortured for his part in the Mau Mau Uprising that led to Kenya's independence from British colonial rule. He witnessed some of the worst crimes against humanity in twentieth century Africa yet, in the sunset of his life, he wants nothing more than to learn to read. It turns out that the lessons of struggling to overcome tyranny will come in handy in his determined efforts at 84 to become a the oldest first grader in the world. The story is now a film The First Grader -- but not a documentary -- and that is a good thing. I had a chance to meet with producers Sam Feuer and Richard Harding to talk about a surprising twist in their own struggle to get his story told.
CS: This movie could have been so sappy. It was powerful but not in a heartbreaking way. That's a fine line to walk and I get that sense that is exactly how Maruge would have wanted his story to be told.
SF: It's a tearjerker, but, in a refreshing way, not in a sad way. It's whimsy. People have told me they come out feeling like they want to do more -- to better their lives. The story takes place in Kenya, but it's not a Kenyan story.
CS: I like the title because first grade to me is precisely where you begin to learn all of life's fundamentals. That's where you develop into who you're going to become. All the qualities that Maruge brought to being a first grader are those of the person you aspire to become by going to school in the first place. I initially assumed the film was a documentary when I saw it promoted as a National Geographic film. I've never even heard of a National Geographic feature film.
RH: It's the first one.
CS: How did you get National Geographic on board?
RH: They came at the end. They had nothing to do with the financing of the film. You know, we went everywhere in the country to look for money but nobody would give us the money. We ended up getting the money in the UK -- from the BBC Films and from the UK Film Council. Once the film was completed, we needed a distributor to get it out and that's when National Geographic came in place.
CS: No kidding? Because I thought the photography was very much the National Geographic style. My favorite thing about the film is the light-- a special glow, almost a duskiness that really creates a sense of place.
RH: That was our director (Justin Chadwick).
CS: So, I read one critique of the film, it was from the UK. It said the story telling was too fantastical. The ending was too Hollywood. It wrapped up a bit too neatly. What do you say to that?
SF: I say that everything that happened in the movie happened in the real story and one of the things that attracted us to the story when we read the first article that, in the newspaper was that it was so kind of structured like a movie in Hollywood. That's why we went out to make it. It already had all those elements to it. Nothing was made up. He really did take off his shirt to show his scars from torture [in front of the head of the Department of Education.] The kids really did protest for their teacher to return.
CS: Oh, because the implication was that these scenes in particular were added on. You're saying they really did happen like that?
RH: The person that wrote that didn't do his research.
CS: What was it like to meet Margue before he passed away (in 2009)?
SF: He was very proud. He was proud to be that symbol of education and he wanted us to tell that story to inspire people around the world for education.
RH: But, he was aware of what it was going to be inside of it. He was invested in it. He was very detailed. The only thing he was not willing to talk about was the activities in the uprising. He was willing to talk about everything else but the guy kept that sacred until the day he died. You do not recant your oath. Whether the battle is over or not. You just don't. He took that to the grave so a lot of the Mau Mau things that you saw, are based on research.
CS: Well, I went to see it with a friend of mine who grew up in Britain and he said, "I feel really bad because I didn't know about any of this."
SF: Well, most people don't.
RH: Most Kenyans, younger generation Kenyans today, they don't really understand or know much about it because it's kind of like a forgotten truth. So the past is in the past. Let's leave it in the past.
SF: It's not really taught much in schools and that's why there is a big generational gap between the young ones in Kenya and the older generation because the older generation knows what they fought for. It's kind of like America. The older generation, they go through civil rights, they fought - the blacks. It's that type of thing. The younger generation never had to fight. You know, a young guy could care less. The older generation appreciates what they have.
CS: I'm surprised you released this in the middle of onslaught of summertime blockbusters and CGI fests. What is the appeal?
SF: Who isn't about improving their lives? I think we all reach a point - at some point where we look back and regret the things that we didn't do in our lives feeling that it's too late. It's too late to do this and I'm too old for this. It's not going to happen.
RH: And it's never too late. I think the key to this movie that it's never too late.
SF: If I'd given up, the movie would have never been made.
CS: How did you keep going? There must have been points where you questioned yourself?
RH: We didn't get verbal encouragement. No, we got verbal putdowns. I mean, what kept us going was the fact that we believed in this story. We thought it was such a remarkable story to tell and there was no stopping us. We really believe that no matter how many no's you get out, there's always going to be someone that's going to say yes. You don't know who it is. Where it's going to be or when.
SF: It's like when you look at the statistics. For example, we looked at the statistics of Babe Ruth, you know. I mean, you know, he had more strike outs than anybody you can think of, you know. But, at the same time, he had the most home runs. So, it doesn't matter how many no's you get. That home run is around the corner if you keep going and getting up to the plate. You know, we believe to continuously keep on going.
CS: So, what was your first home run?
SF: BBC saying yes.
R: And getting Anne Peacock to be the writer.
SF: That was first base. Anne Peacock was first base.
SF: And when BBC said yes, you know, the bases were loaded.
Update: Sam and Richard just returned from a screening in Kenya for the cast made up largely of real life students. Sam wrote:
The other day we spent the entire day on set with the kids and screened the movie to them for the first time... Words cannot express the experience, the joy, the excitement, the honor... Pictures and video will soon... How beautiful Agnes, Susan and the rest of the kids have grown...
Last night we had 2 screens -- packed houses -- all Kenyan... Shouts of Cheers... Laughter and tears... Standing ovation... The real Jane Obinchu and her family... The Maruge clan -- all were so honored and pleased with the tribute to Maruge, who was up in heaven with his walking stick, working on his moonwalk with MJ... Hey, its never too late to dream... :)