Chadwick hones in on the minute detail...

London Film Festival

By Naima Khan - Spoonfed

From the director of The Other Boleyn Girl comes a heart warming depiction of one man’s struggle with education in Kenya, based on a true story.

For a Mancunian director, Justin Chadwick has chosen a very American title for his film, The First Grader : perhaps Kenyans do use the term ‘first graders’ but it doesn’t ever actually appear in the film. Chadwick has also chosen a rather formulaic structure through which to tell the touching true story of Maruge, an 84 year-old man who decides to go to elementary school for the first time.

Chadwick has a weighty character on his hands and a worthwhile story driven by themes of hope, tenacity and development; but in choosing such a conventional structure, he fails to set this film apart. Maruge, on the other hand, played by Oliver Litondo, is a standout character portrayed flawlessly by a remarkable actor.

Inspired by the government’s decision to provide “free education for all” and driven by a letter from the president he can’t read, Maruge decides to make use of the chance for an education. He joins the primary school class of inspirational Teacher Jane, a character completely owned by Naomie Harris who creates a teacher we all wish we had.

Maruge and Jane face animosity from the parents of the children in the class – all brilliant non-actors – mixed interest from the press and bureaucracy from superintendents and city bigwigs. The view that an education is wasted on an old man pervades the film, as do the things owed to Maruge for his part in fighting the British occupation of Kenya. These themes elevate The First Grader and Chadwick handles the complexity of education in a developing country with delicacy and warmth. He reminds us of the oft-forgotten elderly members of society who continue to carry with them their country’s past: a universal point that rings louder and truer for countries with a colonial history, like Kenya.

Chadwick also champions education as the Kenyans do. He’s clearly in love with this country, its landscape and its people. His scenes depict the past conflicts Maruge has lived through alongside his current struggle for education. His shots hone in on the minute detail of sowing seed by hand and writing numbers with a blunt pencil, and they all weave seamlessly into Maruge’s issues with his old eyes and ears.

A moving film with an enthralling cast, inspirational characters and a weighty history, Justin Chadwick’s The First Grader is only let down by its predictable structure.


The First Grader pushes All The Right Buttons

The View London Review

By Matthew Turner

An enjoyable feel-good drama that pushes all the right buttons thanks to strong direction and terrific performances from Oliver Litondo and Naomie Harris, though it’s also entirely predictable and some scenes may be too strong for young children.

What’s it all about?

Directed by Justin Chadwick, The First Grader is based on a true story and set in Kenya in 2003. Oliver Litondo stars as 84-year-old village elder and ex-freedom-fighter Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge, who decides to take advantage of a government free primary schooling initiative to gain the education he’s always wanted, prompted by the arrival of an important letter from the government that he’s unable to read.

Maruge duly presents himself at the gate of a school run by kindly Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) and her assistant Alfred (Alfred Munyua). After some initial resistance (Alfred insists Maruge must have a school uniform; Maruge turns up the next day in shorts, long socks and a shirt and tie), he’s allowed to join the school but his presence causes local and later national unrest, with seemingly only Jane prepared to fight his corner.

The Good

Oliver Litondo is superb, delivering a performance that is dignified, determined and quietly moving, while radiating warmth and humanity; his interactions with the children (especially a lame little girl and a boy who’s bullied by his strict father) are amongst the film’s highlights. Naomie Harris is equally good as Jane, generating strong chemistry with both Litondo and the children.

Chadwick’s direction is assured throughout, particularly during the schoolroom scenes, which have an authentic feel thanks to the use of a real school and its pupils. There’s also a lot of humour in the film, though some of the jokes are a little dodgy, for example a scene where Jane asks Maruge how he managed to control the kids and he replies that he threatened them with his stick, which would be a lot funnier if we hadn’t already seen Maruge use his stick to break up two fighting pupils in an earlier scene.

The Bad

The main problem with the film is that it’s relentlessly predictable from beginning to end, to the point that every scene unfolds exactly as you’d expect. In addition, the brutal flashback sequences (to Maruge being tortured by the British in the 1960’s) may prove too strong for younger viewers.

Worth seeing?

This is a well-made feel-good drama that makes up for its predictability with strong direction, an emotionally engaging script and terrific performances from its two leads. Worth seeing.


London Film Festival Goes African

2010 London Film Festival

Marianne Gray - The Spectator Arts Blog

When the Kenyan film The First Grader is screened this week it will be just one of a dozen films from Africa at this year’s festival.

Moving on from colonial influences and civil wars, this rich mix of contemporary films from Africa increasingly tell different sorts of stories from Africa, like the feel-good Africa United about five kids on a 3000 mile journey from Kigali, Rwanda, to the 2010 World Cup, and the powerful Life, Above All, a haunting and contemporary film about life in a South African village.

Already being billed as the “African Slumdog”, Africa United, is a road movie about three young Rwandans who catch a bus to Kigali for a trial with a FIFA football scout. But it’s the wrong bus and they end up in the Congo, without papers or money and a possible future in the child army.

The film version of Allan Stratton’s bestselling novel Chanda Secret’s, now entitled Life, Above All, also reflects a new Africa as it is now. Told through the eyes of 12 year old Chanda, the frank storyline takes in AIDs, infant death, teenage prostitution and traditional beliefs and suspicions.

They are both tough, vivid stories of the cultural and social difficulties facing a new generation of young Africans.

The First Grader, by contrast, is the poignant story of an 84-year-old village elder and former Mau-Mau fighter who uses a government initiative on free primary schooling for all to get the education he never had. His late desire to learn to read and write is prompted by a letter from the government, and he goes to the local school but now faces age discrimination.

Other African films include, from Zimbabwe, a documentary called Shungu : The Resilience of People, about the lives of four people, both opposition and government supporters, trying to keep their lives together in the political turmoil, and Imani, from Uganda, which follows three parallel stories in the course of a single day in Kampala.

From Nigeria comes Relentless, not a straight-to-VCD Nollywood-style quick-fix ‘microwave’ film (push the button, wait three seconds and the film is done), but one about a Nigerian peacekeeping soldier in Sierra Leone. From Senegal is a road movie from Dakar to Saint Louis, Saint Louis Blues, and from Chad is A Screaming Man, about a former swimming champion pressurised to volunteer for the civil war effort who commits a terrible act of betrayal.

From two of the Magreb’s most solid filmmaking countries, Egypt and Algeria, comes Microphone about the secret world of Alexandria’s underground music scene and Algeria director Rachid Bouchareb’s thriller Outside the Law, a follow-up to his film that changed French government policy Days of Glory (2006).

And finally, about an African band but from France, there is Benda Bilili!, a truly extraordinary documentary that follows the progress of this band of severely disabled Congolese men and children as they take their music from Kinshasa on a tour in Europe.


Daniel Battsek NGF acquires First Grader 

National Geographic Films

By Ann Thompson - Thompson On Hollywood indieWIRE

With his first fall festival buy since he took over National Geographic Films, ex-Miramax president Daniel Battsek has acquired U.S. rights for Toronto and Telluride title The First Grader. Battsek had been looking for just the right movie that would fit into the National Geographic mandate to reveal something about our world. (Battsek chose not to release National Geographic’s prisoner-of-war film The Way Back, directed by Peter Weir and starring Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Jim Sturgess, preferring to supervise Newmarket Films instead.) When I spoke to Battsek at TIFF, he said, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

So he found it in this four-hankie true story about an 84-year-old Kenyan’s struggle for learning, which was the runner-up to The King’s Speech for Toronto’s People’s Choice award. “When I saw ‘The First Grader,’ I knew immediately that National Geographic should acquire it,” stated Battsek. “It’s not only about historic political events, but it tells a personal story with great warmth and humor.”

In the film Mau Mau rebel Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo) seeks to attend the local primary school, figuring he fought for this free education. Teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) supports him in this fight against parents and officials. National Geographic also released Afghan War doc Restrepo, Everest adventure The Wildest Dream and the upcoming Desert Flower, Flying Monsters 3D and Blue Man Group : Mind Blast.

The first feature from Origin Pictures, ex-BBC chief David Thompson’s new production company, The First Grader was backed by BBC Films and the (soon-to-be-defunct) UK Film Council in association with Videovision Entertainment, Lip Sync and ARTE France. The Sixth Sense/Origin Pictures Production was directed by Justin Chadwick, written by Ann Peacock and produced by David M. Thompson, Sam Feuer and Richard Harding. Exec producers were Joe Oppenheimer, Anant Singh, Norman Merry and Helena Spring.


US Theatrical Distribution For First Grader

National Geographic Entertainment

By Brian Brooks - indiWIRE

Director Justin Chadwick’s “The First Grader” has been picked up by National Geographic Entertainment for U.S. theatrical distribution. The true tale about an 84-year-old Kenyan’s battle for an education screened at the recent Toronto and Telluride film festivals. It was a runner-up for the Toronto fest’s “People’s Choice Award.”

“The First Grader” tells the true story of Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo), an old Mau Mau rebel in his eighties, who knocks on the door of a bush primary school, seeking the free education promised by the Kenyan government to everyone. Maruge fought for Kenya’s liberation and now feels he has earned the chance of the education he was denied for so long - even if it means sitting in a first-grade classroom with six-year-olds. The teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) supports Maruge’s struggle, and together they face the opposition from parents and officials who think it’s a waste educating this old man. Through his fight to learn how to read, Maruge and his teacher embark on a journey for a better future for himself and his country.

When I saw ‘The First Grader,’ I knew immediately that National Geographic should acquire it,” commented Daniel Battsek, president of National Geographic Films in a statement. “It’s not only about historic political events, but it tells a personal story with great warmth and humor. ‘The First Grader’ made Telluride and Toronto audiences laugh and cry, but it also made them think about the power of learning.”

Anant Singh at Distant Horizon, which co-financed the film, handled the domestic sale of “The First Grader;” Penny Wolf, at Goldcrest International, is handling international sales.

“The First Grader” is the latest in a string of major acquisitions for NGE including, “Restrepo,” the Everest adventure “The Wildest Dream,” and the upcoming “Desert Flower,” “Flying Monsters 3D” and “Blue Man Group: Mind Blast.”