Landmark Cinemas’ Filmtastic Films series (formerly the Arts Films series) continues October 2 and 3 with The First Grader, a feature filmed in Kenya and based on a true series of events.
It stars a former ’70s Kenyan TV anchorman, Oliver Litondo, as an 84-year-old illiterate farmer and Kikuyu tribesman, Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge.
Maruge shows up at a rural school in Kenya’s scenic Rift Valley one day in 2003, requesting to be enrolled. He wishes to take advantage of a Kenyan government decision the year before, to make free primary education universally accessible.
He even wears a school uniform and is equipped with all the mandatory school supplies.
The sympathetic headmistress, Jane Obinchu, played by Naomie Harris (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 28 Days Later), is nevertheless forced to turn him away. Her schoolroom has only 50 desks for its population of 200 students.
Maruge persists, and keeps showing up at the school until Jane finally accepts him, and eventually enlists his aid as an assistant teacher.
However, her decision proves extremely unpopular with local residents, who fear for an old man fraternizing with their children, and with education department bureaucrats opposed what they perceive as an obvious abuse of policy.
Their objections are further inflamed by the constant diatribes of a local talk-radio host.
Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of the old man’s youth, when he served as a guerilla fighter with the Mau Mau rebellion, Kenya’s bloody fight for independence from British colonial rule in the 1950s.
We see him witness the shooting of his own wife and children by the British and his subsequent decade-long imprisonment in Kenyan concentration camps. We also see the determination of spirit that carries through to his present-day quest for literacy.
We also see Maruge’s courage and strength of will reflected when he organizes a protest against Jane’s transfer to a school 300 miles away, when he’s elected as head boy of his school in 2005, and later the same year when he’s invited to speak at the United Nations Millennium Development Summit in New York on the importance of free primary education.
Kimani Maruge was moved to a refugee camp in 2008, during Kenya’s post-election violence, but still managed to walk the four kilometers daily to school.
Later that year, he was forced to withdraw from school, when he was relocated to a senior citizens’ home in Nairobi. Nonetheless, he re-enrolled in a Grade Six class shortly after. He died of stomach cancer in August 2009 at age 89, and was buried on his Rift Valley farm.
British director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) manages to convey a meaningful and inspiring story, with the aid of respected South African screenwriter Ann Peacock (Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), who has made her reputation writing or adapting screenplays with social justice and civil rights-inspired themes.
The First Grader plays at the Qwanlin Cinema Centre on Sunday, October 2 at 5 pm and Monday, October 3 at 7 pm. It is rated PG-14 for scenes of wartime violence.
Brian Eaton is a cinema buff who reviews current films and writes on other film-related topics on a regular basis.