The First Grader is a unique little film that tells a small but important story in an environment that doesn’t get a lot of attention for anything except squalor and atrocity.
Simple and straightforward, this story is still back-dropped by major events in Kenya, all reflected in the experiences of an old man look for dignity through education, children looking for a future, and a teacher who wants to empower them all, even as she’s undermined herself by administrators at every turn. It’s a small movie that could just as easily have been a sappy prestige picture with sanguine photography and big names (not to mention an A-list white actor shoehorned into the story), but it’s much better as an intimate, immediate fairy tale. A fairy tale that actually happened.
The true story of an 84 year-old Kenyan villager and ex Mau Mau freedom fighter who fights for his right to go to school for the first time to get the education he could never afford.
I sat down with the director Justin Chadwick, who was working hard to promote his little film on the festival circuit, despite his familiarity with Hollywood. His last film was The Other Boleyn Girl, so it was quite a reversal to see him strip everything down and tell a story completely without flair. You can read through some important parts of our conversation, and I’ve also included a 20 minute chunk of audio so you can listen to his dulcet English tones yourself.
The First Grader opens today, and you can find out if it’s in a theater near you RIGHT HERE.
Read the interview below, but pick up with the audio to hear Justin talk about finding the village in which they shot, genuinely teaching the children during filming, finding a worthy leading man, employing Naomi Harris, and what his future prospects look like. It’s an MP3 link, so you can listen to it in your browser or right-click and download to toss on your iPod for later.
Yeah, you know you want to work out to my hard-hitting journalism.
Justin: The film is a real audience film for the cinema. People can go together and watch it as a group, and it’s a real emotional journey for them. It’s been great- showing the film around at the festivals, and showing it around the world, we’ve had such fantastic, warm responses.
Renn: You’ve done a fair amount of screenings?
Justin: We’ve done quite a few, and it’s always been the same: the audience just absolutely, open-heartedly embraced the film, they love it, and laugh and cry all in the right places. It’s great.
Renn: Well to get back to the beginning of the story- you’ve done some work in Hollywood, how did you transition into the place where this is a story that would interest you and inspire you to dive in with the full force it takes to get a project like this made?
Justin: Well it was sent to me by one of the producers of The Other Boleyn Girl, David Thompson, who I trust and like and I’ve worked with for quite a number of years- he’s a good man, he’s got really good taste. I knew by him sending me the script we would end up making something we would both be proud of, but it was really going to Kenya and meeting the real man, meeting the real Maruge was the thing that really inspired me to make it. Going around those schools in Africa, seeing those children…
And there was this great, unusual thing about the script that it had the possibility of being an unusual African movie in that it wasn’t issue-driven, it was an uplifting story, it was about one man’s determination to learn how to read. It was uplifting and inspiring, and that felt very very different from any African movie that I’d seen. That was a big motivating force: “How do we make this film appealing to a modern audience?” Yes it does deal with hard-hitting issues, but essentially it’s a film for audience to emotionally engage and enjoy.
Renn: When you were first tossing the script around and before you went to Kenya, was there any inkling that it might be a bigger, more traditional Hollywood prestige movie or was it something you knew would be a smaller, more dedicated and intimate story?
Justin: I think the producers thought it was going to cost a lot more money, that we’d shoot it in South Africa, that we’d shoot it with name-actors, we’d cast all over Africa for the cast of children to make it in a more traditional way. But why? Why would we try and recreate Kenya in South Africa- it’s completely different. And going to Kenya, and meeting the Kakairu tribe that Maruge was in, the Masai tribes, there was just something we could never recreate in South Africa or anywhere else in the world. It’s a Kenyan Story, it felt like it was completely relevant to shoot there. There seemed to be no perceived infrastructure in Kenya- all the bigger movies like Tomb Raider and Out of Africa and the films that had been recently shot there had all shipped in their crew and all the equipment, all the food. I said, “we’ve got to shoot it in Kenya,” and with that we lost all our investment and from South Africa.
I was just like, “well listen, we’ll just go and make it.” We’ll make it for what we’ve got, we’ll take a small group of people in, and we use the people that are there in the country, and if they can’t do it we’ll train people up. We’ll use whatever equipment we can get our hands on there and we’ll live in the area, in the community that we’re making the film in and about. That seemed really obvious to me. I wanted to make the movie, and I was determined to do it, and it also felt completely relevant to do it that way because it gave an intimacy and truth to the whole thing.
Continued in the audio file above…
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