Back to School
Tuesday, September 7, 2010 at 6:39AM
The First Grader

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.”

Article originally appeared on The First Grader (
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