In a small, remote mountain top primary school in the Kenyan bush, hundreds of children are jostling for
a chance for the free education newly promised by the Kenyan government. One new applicant causes astonishment when he knocks on the door of the school. He is Maruge (Litondo), an old Mau Mau veteran in his eighties, who is desperate to learn to read at this late stage of his life. He fought for the liberation of his country and now feels he must have the chance of an education so long denied--even
if it means sitting in a classroom alongside six-year-olds.
Moved by his passionate plea, head teacher Jane Obinchu (Harris), supports his struggle to gain admission and together they face fierce opposition from parents and officials who don't want to waste a
precious school place on such an old man.
Full of vitality and humour, the film explores the remarkable relationships Maruge builds with his classmates some eighty years his junior. Through Maruge's journey, we are taken back to the shocking untold story of British colonial rule 50 years earlier where Maruge fought for the freedom of his country, eventually ending up in the extreme and harsh conditions of the British detention camps.
Directed by Justin Chadwick (THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL/BLEAK HOUSE) from a script by Emmywinner Ann Peacock (THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, NIGHTS IN RODANTHE, KIT KITTRIDGE), THE FIRST GRADER is a heart warming and inspiring true story of one man's fight for what he believes is his right in order to overcome the burdens of his past. It is a triumphant testimony to the transforming force of education.
The filming process itself was quite extraordinary, as the children in the film - who are in many ways the stars - had never even seen a film or television set before let alone been involved in the filming process. Their involvement in the shoot was a totally novel experience for them and their enthusiasm and energy is captured beautifully on screen.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION: From Humble Beginnings
Every film has its birth, a moment where it comes into being. For THE FIRST GRADER, it was an article in the Los Angeles Times of the same name: The First Grader. The article, written by Robyn Dixon, told the remarkable story of Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge, an 84-year-old Kenyan villager who had fought for the Mau Mau rebellion against the British occupation during the 1950s. When the Kenyan government announced in 2002 that it was proposing free primary school education for all, Maruge took it to heart. Arriving at his local school, run by one Jane Obinchu, he requested that she take up his offer and enter him into the first grade so he could learn to read and write.
An enchanting true-life story, made more so by the fact Maruge would later address the United Nations about the need for education in Africa. Screenwriter Ann Peacock was hooked the moment she read the article, "I just picked up the phone and called my agent and said, 'I have to do this story'," she says.
"I was just totally blown away by his courage. This is a man who is illiterate and poor and has nothing, but he just wants to learn to read. To be prepared to humble himself in such a way, to go to a primary school…I thought that was the most amazing thing. But, what really excited me was his Mau Mau background. It informed the character. He stood up and made his voice heard once before and now he was doing it again."
As it turned out, Peacock wasn't alone. Enter Richard Harding and Sam Feuer, the producers behind Los Angeles-based outfit Sixth Sense Productions. Like Peacock, Feuer had read the L.A. Times piece and - remembers Harding - called him straight away. "It was a Sunday. I'll never forget. He called me and told me about the article and I was hooked." Born in Sierra Leone, with African parents, Harding immediately solicited the opinion of his mother. " She said she thought it would be a remarkable story, and we should go ahead and make it. Once I got mom's approval, I knew it was a good story to make!"
Harding and Feuer worked quickly, contacting the journalist behind the article, who referred them to Jane Obinchu, the principal of the school that Maruge attended. "She had told us that nobody had been out there regarding the purchase of their life-rights," says Harding. "We had a lawyer put a contract together and within a week we were out backpacking in Kenya." They met with Maruge to convince him to let them tell his life story. "At the beginning, he didn't quite understand what we were asking. He thought it was a documentary or an interview we wanted to make. A lot of reporters had been out there already."
When Maruge realised what the project was, he signed on the dotted line, leaving Harding and Feuer to
return to the United States to contemplate how they might turn this remarkable tale into a viable feature script. At the same time, Peacock's agent came back with some news. "We discovered that Sixth Sense Productions had gone out there and bought the rights to the story," she recalls. Eventually, her agent tracked down Harding and Feuer, explaining that Peacock was desperate to bring Maruge's story to the screen. "It was such a wonderful marriage at that particular point," says Harding, "we knew it was destiny for us to get together and make this film."
"The obstacle was to find backing for this project. There were a few companies wanting to come on board early on, however they did not share our vision for this film," Harding explains. Even with Peacock attached, whose adaptation of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE for Disney was then riding high at the box-office, it proved hard for Harding and Feuer to get financiers to come on board. "We were shocked. This was Ann Peacock - she'd just written one of the highest grossing movies of that year, which even beat out King Kong! The companies that we had hoped would come on board thought it was a small movie that wouldn't do that well - though they kept saying they would love to see it once made," Harding recalls.
Then, a minor miracle happened. On Peacock's way to South Africa, where she had grown up before moving to Los Angeles, she stopped off in London to have a meeting with BBC Films producer Joe Oppenheimer. During the meeting, she began to pitch Maruge's story. "He just said 'Come with me'. He took me along the passage to David Thompson and sat me down. I pitched it to David and he listened absolutely enraptured. And when I finished, he said 'Let's do it' - which completely stunned me. Producers never declare themselves in front of the writer! They usually go away and talk about it. But, David said 'Let's do it'."
Then head of BBC Films, Thompson, recalls this very moment quite clearly - and just why he wanted to commission Peacock to write it. "It was something about the idea that caught my imagination. It was just an extraordinary story, and above all, a story of one man's endeavours to break through his past and have a new beginning - even at that age. There was something about that that really captivated me. It seemed to be in a way a universal story in a sense that it symbolised what can be done, if somebody is absolutely determined. And, it's not just a story about the triumph of education. It's also a story about someone overcoming their past."
When Thompson stepped down as head of BBC Films to set up his own production company, Origin Pictures, he made it clear that he wanted THE FIRST GRADER to be his new outfit's inaugural production, a proposal that delighted the people at Sixth Sense Productions. "He didn't even finish his sentence before Sam and I both yelled out 'Absolutely!'" remembers Harding. "David orchestrated the financing of the film, which was a tremendous help. Without his involvement from the very beginning, I don't think we could've got it done the way we envisioned - especially as he greenlit it when everybody else said no."
Bringing the Team Together:
With the production underway, the big question was who should direct THE FIRST GRADER?
For the producers, there was only one choice, Justin Chadwick, who Thompson had recently collaborated with on the 2008 feature THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. "He was the perfect partner - a real collaborator," says Thompson, who had even worked with Chadwick, during the director's brief time as an actor, on the 1993 BBC Films production THE HOUR OF THE PIG. "He's a wonderful person to work with. Very much knowing his own mind, very firm, but also very approachable and accessible and a real creative partner."
Chadwick was immediately sold when he received Peacock's script. "I really responded to the material. I thought it was a really challenging movie to do. Education and children, that really struck a chord with me," he says. "I went into the meeting with David and Joe and the way we three responded in that room, I knew we'd all make the same film. They knew it was a difficult subject matter - an old man goes back to school - and we were squirreling in hard-hitting issues while having essentially an uplifting story about the power of education. But, from the very, very off, I knew we all wanted to make the same thing."
Part of Chadwick's initial fascination with the story stemmed from his own upbringing in the northwest of England, where his father worked for a dress company in Manchester and his mother was an art teacher in nearby Bolton. "I know that if I hadn't have come across one teacher, I would never have gone to the local theatre at 11 years old and then joined Manchester Youth Theatre. That changed my life. Education is the most important thing for me. I know it's an obvious thing to say. But, all you need as a child is one good teacher to come across. And, Jane Obinchu is clearly a brilliant teacher."
With Chadwick on board, he began to work with Peacock to refine the script. "She's a very collaborative, open-minded person," the director notes. "I had certain things I wanted to do with the script. Immediately, I wanted to focus on this relationship between Jane and Maruge. The flashbacks were quite complicated in the original script. Also, Jane was a lot older in the original script, and had children of her own. It felt more like from an outside point-of-view. In the early days of the script, you go with your sensibility about what you want to do with the arc. And, I wanted the children at the school to come through, to enrich the story."
If this suggests Chadwick immediately had a grasp of the narrative direction he wanted to take, he admits things really began to change as he started to research his subject. "I came to this not knowing about Kenya and its colonial history," he says. "I hadn't been to Kenya before. I'd been to Africa but I'd only been as a tourist. I'd been to the Gambia when I was a student and been around and travelled. So, I made a very conscious decision to really immerse myself and talk and listen to as many people from that period - from the period of the Fifties. But, also with people that really knew their subject. And, that's what really informed the script and changed it."
Yet what really affected Chadwick was meeting Maruge, who would sadly die of cancer just a few months later. "He was a real fighter," says Chadwick, recalling their encounter in a hospice where Maruge would spend his last days. "He refused to be old. You'd be sitting with him and he'd go 'I'm not old! He wanted to go for a walk. So, we helped him up - he was as light as a feather but you could feel the strength inside him. He had this real power and he walked a few steps, and he went to the front gate, and he said, 'Open the gate' and he took off down this road! We were in the middle of Nairobi, and there were goats and trucks everywhere! All the nurses started chasing him with a wheelchair, and he was hacking it down the street!"
Harding, who had kept in regular touch with Maruge via his granddaughter since their first encounter, concurs. "He was a wonderful, gentle old man. Even up until the day he was dying, he wanted to learn We went back to visit him when he was in the hospice and his desire to learn was just greater than anybody I'd seen. Every single time we went to visit him, he tried to convince us to bring a teacher to come over and teach him. Unfortunately, the nuns at the nursing home would not allow it, because the other residents there would've opposed him getting preferential treatment. But, he would constantly ask for a teacher because he missed learning. He was a very lovely, spirited man."
It was this spirit that Chadwick wanted to invest in the script. While this meant rewriting the story across a number of drafts, Peacock felt the project was in very safe hands. "It's wonderful when you can hand your script over to someone almost like you're handing your child over to them - and you entrust them to do the very, very best and make it even better than you did. And, that's how I felt with Justin. He had such a clear vision of what he wanted to do. And he inspired me tremendously and brought the best out of me - and we really got the script to an even better place than it was."
Creating the World of THE FIRST GRADER
The next big question faced by Chadwick was where to shoot THE FIRST GRADER. South Africa was mooted, a sensible idea given how the country's infrastructure and film industry was perfectly used to handling large-scale outside productions yet Chadwick, for one, was not convinced. "I fought to shoot it in Kenya," he says. "We could've shot it in South Africa, but I fought for it to be shot in Kenya, because you just felt this unbelievable, inexplicable energy that was there, with these children, these people. It was a different feeling - and I wanted to capture in the film and use in the film. I went down to South Africa but I kept coming back to Kenya." Read more
Back to School:
Despite his principal cast in place, Chadwick still faced one major headache: how to integrate Harris and Litondo into a classroom of real pupils who had never even seen a camera or a television, let alone acted before. "I knew we wouldn't be able to shoot them in the traditional way," says Chadwick. While he had already had accumulated experience working with "real kids" from Newcastle when he worked on a TV show, he'd never pulled off anything like this. Initially, long before filming began, he decided the best approach was just to gradually make his presence felt at the school. "I just sat there, and let the children come to me, and just observed what they were like." Read more
Maruge and the Mau Mau
Working with the school children wasn't the only difficulty THE FIRST GRADER presented. Obviously an outsider to the country, Chadwick was desperate to be authentic to the Kenyan way of life, and admits he was "very conscious" about THE FIRST GRADER not offering up an ill-educated westernised perspective on an African country and its people. "A lot of American productions, they go in and slam everything in. So I went in and listened to the advice from people there and then you create it outside. I was able to listen, and observe, and people came to me and told me extraordinary things. People with a Kikuyu past, a Maasai past - how people did things, or farmed." Read more
Justin Chadwick is the award winning theatre, television and film director who most recently completed shooting THE FIRST GRADER, starring Naomi Harris for Origin Pictures / Sixth Sense Productions for BBC Films and the UK Film Council. His first feature film was the highly-acclaimed THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, which premiered at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, starring Eric Bana, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson.
Previous to this Justin set-up the mini-series, BLEAK HOUSE, and directed nine of the fifteen episodes, which were broadcast by the BBC in the UK, and by PBS in the United States as part of their Masterpiece Theatre series. He was nominated for the Prime-time Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special; the Royal Television Society Award for Breakout Performance Behind the Scenes; and, the BAFTA Award for Best Direction for his work on BLEAK HOUSE, which was the Best Drama Serial winner at the British Academy Television Awards 2006.
BLEAK HOUSE was nominated for two Golden Globes, three Satellite Awards and won at the Royal Television Society Awards, the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards and the Television Critics Awards. Coming from a background in acting, he started his directorial career in the theatre with award winning productions including Molieres Hypochondriac at the Assembley rooms during the Edinburgh Festival.
He made his television debut with the 1993 television movie Family Style starring Ewan McGregor, after which he directed and performed in Shakespeare Shorts, a series that explored the history of Shakespearean characters and presented them in key scenes from the plays in which they appeared.
He directed episodes of EAST ENDERS, BYKER GROVE, THE BILL, SPOOKS, and set up the series' for RED CAP and MURDER PREVENTION.
Justin is also developing several projects including the screen version of the Daphne du Maurier novel, JAMAICA INN, for Focus Films, he is writing the adaptation for the multi-award winning novel, THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES, for Pink Sands Films / Film 4, which he will also direct, and he is attached to the Ron Bass script, THE GODMOTHER, with Unanimous Pictures producing, based on the novel by Carrie Adams.
Ann Peacock, the scriptwriter, was born and raised in South Africa where she obtained an undergraduate degree majoring in English Literature and Speech & Drama and later, a Law degree from the University of Cape Town. Ann immigrated with her family to Los Angeles where she became a screenwriter. Ann won an Emmy for her first film A LESSON BEFORE DYING, which she wrote for HBO, and followed it with the blockbuster hit THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, NIGHTS IN RODANTHE and KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL. Her upcoming projects, other than THE FIRST GRADER, include an adaptation of John Grisham's THE PARTNER, the epic MARCO POLO, the action classic ODYSSEUS, the indie MEMORY OF RUNNING and adventure story AIRMAN. She has retained a strong connection with Africa.
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