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.