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.”