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goldcrest films

BBC Films, UK Film Council in association with
Videovision Entertainment, Lip Sync and ARTE France,
a Sixth Sense/Origin Pictures Production


Naomie Harris
Oliver Litondo

Executive Producers
Joe Oppenheimer, Norman Merry, Anant Singh, Helena Spring

Produced by
David M. Thompson, Sam Feuer, Richard Harding 

Written by
Ann Peacock

Directed by
Justin Chadwick


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Tel: 416-960-5200




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 1950’s. 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, “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 First Grader World

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.”

Both Thompson and Oppenheimer had worked in South Africa before for the adaptation of Gillian Slovo’s novel, RED DUST, Thompson was in agreement with his director. “It was much better filming in Kenya, much more authentic and real,” he says. Thompson had been involved in a similar debate when prepping Michael Caton Jones, SHOOTING DOGS with Oppenheimer once again, and in the end they found a way to shoot the majority of the film in Rwanda despite the obstacles. The Kenyan film industry was somewhat in its infancy though, despite having recently played host to Fernando Meirelles’s Oscar®-winning THE CONSTANT GARDENER. Nevertheless, things were changing. “A lot of people are waking up to the film industry and saying ‘It’s a good thing’,” notes Vittoria Sogno, THE FIRST GRADER’s locally-based production designer.

With Kenya settled upon, Chadwick relocated to the country to begin preparations several weeks before the shoot was due to begin. While he began scouting for locations, he also faced the difficulties of casting - in particular the youngsters that Maruge finds himself learning with in the classroom, where much of the film is set. “I was thinking, ‘How am I going to cast this?’ There were thoughts that we’d have to go all over Africa to try and get this class.” But, something about this notion didn’t sit right with him. He decided it would be much better to visit a real school and cast a classroom of kids en masse.

“In the end, we found this wonderful location up in the Rift Valley in the mountains,” Chadwick notes. “Very unexpected. Not how you imagine Africa to be. It was freezing cold and barren and quite different kind of climate, where it changes quite a lot during the day. We were in the middle of nowhere -a good hour-and-a-half away from the city - and these were country children. So, these children would wake up in the morning, do an hour’s work, then walk five or six miles to school - and emerge from this plain in the Rift Valley, which was almost like a desert, to this school.”

At the same time as securing this valuable setting, “the big quest”, as Chadwick puts it, was to find an actor able to play Maruge. “It’s a Kenyan story and we wanted a Kenyan lead actor,” says Thompson. “That was very important for us. But, we didn’t think we’d find one. It was a nightmare! Frankly, it was very difficult getting people well enough of that age who could pass their medicals. At one stage, it looked like it was going to be impossible, because of the various medical problems that people tend to have at that age.” On Chadwick’s first trip, he cast his net wide, looking all over Africa, for an actor able to not only embody Maruge’s indomitable spirit but also who could act in both English and the local language Kikuyu.

Eventually, he came across Oliver Litondo, a TV news anchorman in the 70’s who had always had a burning ambition to act. As soon as Chadwick met him, he was convinced he had what was needed to lead a film, “I started to screen test him and… he’s a lovely man, Oliver. He had a very good heart and he was very responsive and intelligent in the way that he thought about education and what the film was.”

Litondo, like all of the local cast and crew on the film, knew Maruge’s story well. “I read about it in the local media. And, of course the way the local media reported it, it was not like it was something that people wanted to know. There’s no curiosity per se. So, I read about it in the newspaper. And, then later on, people started talking about it a bit.  But, the local media treated the story simplistically. They didn’t want to know anymore apart from the fact that this old man might want to make some money out of this. As we show in the film, even the head teacher is accused of making money out of Maruge.”

Given Maruge spends the latter part of the film travelling to Nairobi to argue with officials at the Ministry of Education, when Jane is about to be transferred to another school, it was clear Litondo wasn’t playing a simple rural villager. “Maruge was everything in one. The character is challenging in the sense that at one time you find him in a childish situation, playing with children in school. In another situation, he’s acting as a freedom fighter. In another situation, he’s confronting people who are more educated and of a higher mental capacity than him. And yet, you find him arguing probably at par or even sometimes above them.”

Sadly for Litondo, unlike Chadwick, he never got to meet Maruge. “I came on board just before he died. The first time I came for audition when I talked to Justin, we planned to go and see him the next time I came back. But, that day when I left Nairobi to go home, it was on the news that he had just passed away, which was very sad. I felt very sad about it, because I would’ve loved to meet him and talk to him. Having read the script, I became very interested in the man. To play his character, I decided I had to do a little more than just acting. So, I meant to see him and meet him but unfortunately he died before I could.”

After Litondo had been secured for the lead, Chadwick’s thoughts came back to the other key role : that of the school’s defiant principal, Jane Obinchu, who fights the authorities to keep Maruge in her classroom. Chadwick had initially considered the British actress Naomie Harris, best known for her work in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. “She’s a really intelligent actor, very honest and subtle”, he says. Keen to find an entirely Kenyan-based cast, he soon dismissed the idea. But, after scouring Africa to no avail, he returned to his first instincts and reached out to Harris. “I’d never heard of the story of Maruge,” recalls Harris. “But they asked me if I wanted to be involved. I thought the script was great. I loved the idea of being a part of it.”

Rounding out the cast, Chadwick hired Shoki Mokgapa and Alfred Munyua to play Jane’s colleagues at the school, Elizabeth and Alfred. With Vusi Kunene, most recently seen in THE NO.1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY, brought on board to play the school’s officious inspector, Mr. Kipruto, that left one major role to fill : that of Charles, husband to Jane. In the end, the production lucked out, casting the South African-born actor Tony Kgoroge, who has appeared in some of the finest African-set dramas of the past decade, including HOTEL RWANDA, BLOOD DIAMOND, LORD OF WAR and, most recently, Clint Eastwood’s INVICTUS.

“He’s very supportive of Jane and he’s very ambitious, a family-loving kind of guy,” Kgoroge says of Charles. Fortunately, like Harris, who gets to meet the real Jane when she came to set one day, Kgoroge got a chance to spend time with his real-life counterpart. “It really helped me. He’s a gentleman. I looked at him and thought, ‘My goodness - how am I going to play him?’  He’s a loving guy. It’s in him, y’know? His walk, and how he looks at his wife… the way he laughs. It’s a genuine laugh. It’s a genuine smile. Those are the things that, in the small space of time, I tried to grab and use.”


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.”

The next move was to introduce Rob Hardy, the film’s cinematographer, and Jennie Paddon, his assistant - but without any equipment in tow. “I banned all cameras,” says Chadwick. “If you bring a camera, kids just want to see what they look like on a camera and all of a sudden you get kids acting up for the camera, and I didn’t want any of that. So, there were three of us hanging around the school. And, we got to know the children, got to know them properly - and then guided them towards those different characters that we were going to do. Then slowly we got a little tiny camera in.”

Chadwick initially felt like he would need to shoot the film using the same “observational” style he had used for his award-winning BBC version of BLEAK HOUSE. But, he soon changed his mind when the camera was introduced. “Literally we had the camera a few inches from the children and they weren’t bothered. Unless they caught their reflection in the camera glass, they just didn’t know. You had to give them something to play or do that was more interesting than Rob or the camera.” Even so, while the children didn’t prove camera-shy, the question of how to get them to ‘act’ was another matter. In the end, Chadwick resolved to design lessons plans for the children that could be integrated into the film.

“When Naomie walks in as Jane, you give her a proper lesson and you give the children a proper thing that they have to do,” says Chadwick. “And they would do it. So much so that I would go in and they’d go, ‘Teacher Justin! Teacher Justin!’ There’d be stuff on the blackboard for me to mark! They just saw me as a teacher. Everything was structured like that. They thought Oliver was a real student going to the school. They thought Naomie was a real teacher. They thought Rob, the cameraman, was a real teacher - although he had a camera!”

Shooting in a technique Thompson describes as, “rapid fire… but in a non-intrusive way”, the producer notes that Chadwick’s style reminded him of working with the legendary director Alan Clarke on his 1989 television film, THE FIRM. “There was that same incredible focus and that team spirit, driving towards a goal, and filmmaking not being too obtrusive - doing it in a quiet way, without all this locking off sets. Making the whole set live and being able to shoot the whole time, and doing it in a non-conventional filmic way. Shooting somewhere between a film and a documentary. That was really necessary to get the children relaxed.”

Using this method, it meant that Chadwick needed Harris, as their teacher, on set three weeks in advance. “I had only been given the part two weeks previously,” says Harris. “And I needed to learn the accent, and go through the script and learn my character. I kept thinking - ‘Why does this director want this? Why do I need to come out three weeks in advance? It doesn’t make any sense!’ It’s really unusual. It’s normally a couple of days to get over the jetlag and then you’re on. But he said, ‘I really want you to work with the children.’ So I thought, ‘That’s fine! I’ll just go and start playing with them and they’ll be absolutely fine.’”

In the end, Harris arrived a fortnight before shooting began. “I’m so glad that I did. They were so different to any other children that I’d met. Really reserved and really shy, really gentle, really innocent. So it takes them a long time to warm up to you. It was actually really frustrating and upsetting in the beginning. I kept thinking, ‘What is wrong with me? Why won’t they talk to me? Why won’t they play with me?’ Also, I’m an adult and so they’re really respectful of the adults. And, adults are very strict and firm with them in the school - loving but very firm. They’re used to authoritarian figures. You don’t really play around with the teacher. So there was just that distance which made it really hard.”

What made it harder still was that, while playing Jane, Harris was also having to be the children’s teacher. “I was really taking lessons,” she says. “We had to do a lot of it for real. My step-ad is a teacher… and I have taught at his school before. He’ll say, ‘Come in and do a fun day of acting activities with the kids.’ So again I thought, ‘That will be fine. I’ve done that before.’ It was so hard to keep their attention for that long. And, in the class I had, it was mixed abilities, so you had children who were just learning their numbers, one to ten, and then children who can do really complicated multiplication sums. So you had to work out a lesson plan that was going to keep them all interested, which was really tough.”

Litondo calls working with the children “the most interesting part” of making THE FIRST GRADER. Yet how did they take to an adult arriving in their classroom, dressed in a school uniform? “They were at first a bit surprised,” he smiles. “But, later on they just accepted me as one of them. In that part of Kenya, education is something that is coming in as a new thing, so it doesn’t bother them really. So the kids are not so much surprised to see somebody bigger or older coming in. In that school, there is a boy who is 15 years old in the same class as kids who are six years old. So, I think they just accepted me as one of them. Like I’m looking and seeking to get education just as they are.”

For Thompson, he hopes the experience his young cast had in participating on THE FIRST GRADER was just as enriching for them. “I hope it was a great experience and a life-changing one, making the film. It was a whole experience they’d never had before. And, the Maruge story was an inspiration. There were some much older people in the school - there was a 19-year-old boy, for example. And, he felt he was inspired by Maruge. That’s the other key thing. He inspired a whole generation of other people to go back into schooling. The message being you do not have to be what you have been. You are not doomed by your past. You can transcend it. And, that to me is what the symbolic power of the film is.”


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.”

Yet this still left Chadwick with the issue of dealing with the Mau Mau rebels in the flashback scenes, which take us to when Maruge was a young man fighting the British. “It’s very difficult when you’re an outsider to try and work out what went on through history,” he says. “A lot of families don’t talk about that period of history in that time because it’s too raw still. It’s very private.” Nevertheless, with a largely Kenyan crew on his side, he began to make contacts that would help him strive for the sort of authenticity he wanted.

“I was very, very lucky. I met this young man, Paul, who is in the movie - as the Mau Mau leader - whose grandparents had been in the camps. I was very keen to have music in the film, and to record music live. He went to his grandparents, and spoke to them. And, after many meetings his grandma started to give him songs. Some of the songs that are in the film actually came right the way back from that experience. They’re completely authentic Kikuyu and completely authentic from that period. That sort of thing, I would never have known.”

While Chadwick is keen to stress that the film is primarily about “the importance of education in people’s lives”, he concedes that it does deal with Kenya’s complicated past. “In the Sixties, when independence came in, like a lot of places, the general feeling is to move on. You don’t really talk about the past. But we’re at a point now where we can look back. I think that a lot of people in Kenya didn’t even know what had happened to the Mau Mau. The Mau Mau were so represented as a bloodthirsty band of guerrillas, that it’s very one-sided and forgotten. The film touches on that.”

As far as Litondo is concerned, it was this experience in his youth, as a freedom fighter, that shaped Maruge into the man we see on screen. “You can see him as a young man not succumbing to certain forces. He was tortured. He was expected to denounce the Mau Mau - but he doesn’t. That I think hardened him. That made him into what we see in the film. In every situation, he was determined. In detention he was determined and his determination pushed him to the level of saying ‘I want to make an impact’. I look at him as being what he is today from what he was, as a young man.”

Even so, Chadwick argues that he was determined not to sensationalise the flashback scenes. “We tried to be really honest with it, and fair, and to tell the story of what happened in the Fifties. What I really liked about it - and it tallied with what I was feeling at the time - is that if you see an old person, you make a thousand assumptions about them. But, that person has a huge life behind them and Maruge has this whole huge life. In Africa, the elderly are looked after by their families. They have a family network. I think we have a lot to learn from Africa in lots of ways.”

Above all, THE FIRST GRADER pays tribute to Maruge, a man Litondo believes is “inspirational” to his nation. “He’s an inspiration to both young and old Kenyans, who value education. Since Maruge’s story came out, I’ve read other stories of older people going to school,” he adds. Harris concurs. “I love the fact as well that it’s an 84-year-old man wanting to learn. Your life is never over. It’s never too late to learn and to be open to learning as well. I think those are really great messages.”

According to Thompson, “What we were trying to do was make a film which was true to his spirit - one that is hopefully accessible, appealing and commercial. It’s both heart-warming but has some real grit in it. That’s what I think Justin has done really effectively.” Enchanted by his time in Kenya, Chadwick sums up his feelings thus : “Apart from my children and my wife, it was the best single experience of my life.” His only sadness is that Maruge is no longer with us. “That’s the heartbreaking thing - he was never able to see this, and see what we’ve done with it.” Even so, THE FIRST GRADER will show audiences just the kind of man Maruge was.