From Humble Beginnings
Tuesday, September 7, 2010 at 6:35AM
The First Grader

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.”

Article originally appeared on The First Grader (
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