FIRST GRADER, THE
The 84 year-old Kenyan villager and ex Mau Mau freedom fighter Maruge (Oliver Litondo) who could never afford an education is determined to learn to read, encouraged by the Kenyan Government's 'education for all' campaign in 2003. But when he turns up at school, the principal, Jane (Naomie Harris) and her concerned colleague Alfred (Alfred Munyuna) turn him away. But Maruge persists and Jane relents, while her superiors disapprove. Tribal tensions intervene and Jane's life is threatened.
Review by Louise Keller:
Learning never ends is the message of this inspiring true story set in Kenya in which an 84 year old villager joins local primary students in a bid to learn how to read. It's a great story - about former Mau Mau rebellion fighter Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo), who decides to take advantage of the government's pledge to offer free primary school education for everyone. His motivation is to read a letter. But it is not just any letter; it is a letter that helps make sense of his principles and what he has been fighting for all his life. It's a powerful story about the power of the pen and how the past, the present and the future all impact on each other. It works on an emotional level too, with plenty to inspire and move us in this uplifting tale.
At first, as we watch the white haired, elderly man walking with a pronounced limp along the dusty Kenyan road to the primary school, it is difficult to understand why, at this late stage in his life, he is adamant about learning how to read and write. Why does he not want to take it easy and drink with his neighbours? When he is told by Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) the school principal that he cannot stay, he is not deterred but returns again (with cut-off trousers, long socks and blue jumper to emulate school uniform) until she makes 'an executive decision' and invites him into her class. The scenes in which Maruge assimilates into the classroom are notable, especially for the natural reactions from the local children. By using observational camera techniques, director Justin Chadwick captures the essence of the children's behaviour and reactions which is a treat in itself. It does not take long for Maruge to impart his own wisdom to the youngsters in the school yard.
In flashback, we learn of the atrocities Maruge endured in the 50s by the British during the bloody lead up to the 1963 independence. A seemingly insignificant thing - like the sharpening of a pencil - brings back the horrors of being tortured, when he was incarcerated. At times it is difficult to make the connection between the flashbacks and the present, especially with the physical differences of Lwanda Jawar, the actor playing the young Maruge. However, the revelations are crucial to the story allowing us to understand the importance of standing up for what you believe.
Harris is likeable as Jane, the caring school teacher who exudes passion, integrity and determination, while Litondo (a former TV anchor) is a true find, playing the pivotal role of Maruge with great veracity. Screenwriter Ann Peacock first read about Maruge's story in an article in the Los Angeles Times; her screenplay describes the controversial journey taken by the world's oldest primary student and how it leads to his playing a part at the United Nations, promoting the need for education in Africa. Rob Hardy's cinematography offers us a sense of the wide-open spaces of the dusty countryside while Alex Heffes's rhythmic African music instills heart.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Based on real events, The First Grader is a unique blend of uplifting self determination and harrowing conflict. The self determination element is the present day, as 84 year old Maruge (Oliver Litondo) reacts with keen interest to the new Kenyan Government policy of free education for all.
Having been a poor tribesman much of his life, and enlisting in the anti-British colonialist Mau Mau organisation, he never had an opportunity to learn even the basics. He wants to read, prompted by a general desire to get educated and partly by an important letter he had always wanted to read for himself.
The harrowing conflict is shown in flashbacks, to the warring times when the Mau Mau were trying to throw the British out of Kenya in the 50s. Brutality and death filled the years.
Litondo delivers a credible combo of a battered and ageing fighter, still spirited and yet wiser. Naomi Harris is warm and open as teacher Jane, the headmistress at a remote Kenyan school, who wants to help Maruge and eventually becomes his champion - at some risk to her career and even her life. All the children are natural and the setting is evocative.
The simmering tribal tensions from the pre-Independence days are not far below the surface, and this adds a layer of complexity to the various relationships. The screenplay tells the story with the bumps mostly ironed out, but while it shines a light on some of the underlying issues, it doesn't explore them to any satisfactory degree.
Although a little too neat and cleaned up, the basic story is well told and if it doesn't have the impact it could have, it's nevertheless an engaging film.
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FIRST GRADER, THE (PG)
CAST: Naomie Harris, Sam Feuer, Tony Kgoroge, Oliver Litondo, Nick Reding, Vusi Kunene, John Sibi-Okumu, Da 'Chruchill' Ndambuki, Israel Makoe
PRODUCER: Sam Feuer, Richard Harding, David M. Thompson
DIRECTOR: Justin Chadwick
SCRIPT: Ann Peacock
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Rob Hardy
EDITOR: Paul Knight
MUSIC: Alex Heffes
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Rialto
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 17, 2011