The First Grader begins in a 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, 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, 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.
The First Grader is directed by Justin Chadwick (THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL/BLEAK HOUSE) from a script by Emmy-winner Ann Peacock (THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA), 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 FIRST GRADER stars Naomie Harris and Oliver Litondo, was produced by Richard Harding, Sam Feuer, David M. Thompson, and was executive produced by Joe Oppenheimer, Anant Singh and Helena Spring.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you first encounter the story of The First Grader?
Justin Chadwick: Well I was sent a script and we thought about this article that was in the New York Times and the LA Times about this old man that went back to school. That intrigued me because it felt like a different movie coming out of Africa, I thought that it was celebrating life and education and it had a heart and an amazing and uplifting story, a great message and it would center on these children who be the heartbeat of the film, so I was intrigued.
BT: When did you start this film? Was it hard to find a starting point for this subject?
JC: Ann Peacock, who wrote chronicles of Narnia, had written the first draft of the script. She had been to Kenya and she had met the teachers and the pupils and she had written a draft, so I went to Kenya and I met the real Kimani Maruge who the story is based on—he was 89 and he was in a hospice. I started to talk to him and, through these conversations and many meetings that I had with him, I started to find the real story of what had happened, not only in his recent lifetime but also with his colonial British-Kenyan past that had so affected him. His story affected the themes of the film; how he felt about his wife and his children and his feelings about his education, but also with his connection with the land and the land that he gave in the 50’s. So, my answers all came from research and actually being in Kenya. I was also very aware that being British and the fact that I was an outsider would be a huge benefit to the film. I would watch and observe, learn and listen—mainly listen to the stories that were around me from the people that I was representing in the film. We would go in with a very small group of people, mainly made up of Kenyans, and speak to the local community elders and go into the villages and communities and listen to their stories about important topics, like Kenya’s free education and also this period of history that had been forgotten and untold. The British do not learn about the extent of the colonial bastion in Kenya, but neither do the Kenyans. The Kenyans said that they have moved on with their independence and some have forgotten the past.
BT: How did you go about casting The First Grader?
JC: Naomie Harris was the first person I thought of to be the teacher Jane, I knew her work and I thought that, as originally written, she was meant to be older with two children. I was very keen to have a young and inspiring teacher that was representative of the changes that I was seeing in Kenya and dealing with having a profession and having a family, it felt like a modern story about women in Kenya. Naomie was simple; the children, I made the decision to cast 1 whole school and not exclude anybody, so I found a fantastic school in a very dramatic landscape. The children were very quiet and withdrawn, some of them had never seen a TV or never seen a movie and I went into that school and observed and watched and adapted the film characters to them as children. Maruge was more difficult, and the Kenyans even all said that we would not find the right guy. We went looking all over the world and then one of our crew members said, “Well I know this guy that used to read the news in the 70’s!” So we managed to get word to Oliver Litondo, who came overnight and he was a huge anchorman in the 70’s and as soon as I met him, I knew that we had found Maruge. He was such an intelligent, articulate, and beautiful human, and I knew that the children would love him.
BT: How did you go about working with your actors, did you encourage improvisation?
JC: I was very aware that I wanted this to be enjoyed by audiences in the cinema, so I wanted it to be a very cinematic experience. I aimed for a very engaging and cinematic screening accompanied by organic and natural performances. I sat with the real man and he told me stories; he told me about his wife, his sisters and his past, so I needed to honor that. I was working with raw actors who did not have any experience with acting and the whole community got involved; grandparent and parents, it was about trying to give them a situation where every scene had a lesson plan that went up on the board and there was no acting involved and it was them reacting to situations. We did not rehearse; we basically worked with the children so we got to know them as an intimate and small group of people. We had to work incredibly quickly because these kids would get very bored very quickly, but what you are seeing is Naomie teaching a real class and a real situation that we had set up before hand, and those are real reactions. Most of the scenes were done in that way, and it still captures Africa in a way that I have not seen before.
BT: As far as the flashbacks in the movie, how accurate are they?
JC: Well the flashbacks, they were some of the most difficult things that I have ever had to shoot because Maruge himself told me those events. The way that we were approaching the film, the Kenyan crew who did not know this history went back and talked to their families about their experiences and we discovered more first-hand accounts that had not been talked about in families and communities. The villages in the film are real villages, and some of them had been there at that time, through the troubles. So when he told me these stories, they were so visceral and real and, and he shared them with me when he was 89. This is obviously many years after his struggles had occurred, but they were still so vivid. The way he told me about the time he spent in the camp and what he had been through, I had to make sure that I made those visceral to the audience. When you have a man who tells you his first account and how they never broke his will— he was beaten, they cracked his scull, he lost his toes and punctured him with pencils—I felt that I could not shy away from those scenes because they fill the film and show the man and character that he was.
BT: How did you come up with the visual style of The First Grader?
JC: Ann Peacock is a great screenwriter and I think that the basic structure of the story was already written. I was very keen with my own research to make sure that the children would be the heart of the film. When you are with children, they are so engaging and they have this healing quality. The way that you can be with a child and a child’s attention makes you forget what is troubling you. Maruge, although he is reliving the past, he is with these children and they are helping him to view the future. I spent hours on buses and I learned that Obama was there when free education was announced, so every bus I was on, there was this myth that Obama had been on this bus. There was this great humor among Kenyans and there was this great banter. Later on in the process, I wanted to capture this humor, which is why I created the character of the DJ. I met a real DJ and he gave me half-an-hour to film those scenes. With the visual style of the film, I wanted to display this extraordinary and beautiful landscape. I wanted that because Maruge talked about the land and how it played such a big role in his life. I wanted it to be beautifully composed; filmed and structured in a way that had beautiful flowing shots. We did not have massive equipment and we were working with Kenyan equipment most of the time, but what I wanted to make sure to do was to catch the landscape and the people. So that was something that we really worked hard on and achieved, and it is a great visual feast for the audience.
BT: Do you have any future projects lined up?
JC: I’ve just shot a film for BBC 1 which is called Stolen. I used the same strategy by using experienced actors with non-experienced actors and some of the crew. I shot this in Manchester, England and it is about child trafficking and children coming from different parts of the world to England to work. It is important for films like The First Grader to have a life and be able to stand with the big blockbuster films which have these huge machines behind them. Smaller budget films which have equal production value and great performances, and human stories need to be played in the cinema. There has to be a place for this kind of cinema. What is great about this is that we have played around the world and people have really connected with this material. I hope that we can generate interest from the public and I know that the film will really be enjoyed in the cinema by people; it is a very inspiring and uplifting story and I am so proud of the film.
BT: Thanks for a wonderful interview. Good luck with your current and future projects!