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Sundance ‘10 | "A Small Act" Director Jennifer Arnold: "Be Prepared for Anything"

By Indiewire | Indiewire January 21, 2010 at 1:17AM

Jennifer Arnold shot her first feature documentary on the fly in a Kenyan village where she didn't speak the language. The film, "A Small Act," follows Chris Mburu, a Kenyan boy whose life was dramatically changed when an anonymous Swedish woman sponsored his primary and secondary education.
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Jennifer Arnold shot her first feature documentary on the fly in a Kenyan village where she didn't speak the language. The film, "A Small Act," follows Chris Mburu, a Kenyan boy whose life was dramatically changed when an anonymous Swedish woman sponsored his primary and secondary education.

Now a Harvard-educated human-rights lawyer, he hopes to replicate the generosity he once received by founding his own scholarship fund to aid a new generation. The challenges Mburu faces instituting his new program seem at times insurmountable but lead him down the path to discovery. Who is Hilde Back, the person who signed the checks that gave him a chance to succeed? [Synopsis courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival]

"A Small Act"
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Jennifer Arnold
Screenwriter: Jennifer Arnold
Executive Producer: Sheila Nevins, Joan Huang
Producer: Jennifer Arnold, Patti Lee, Jeffrey Soros
Composer: Joel Goodman
Cinematographer: Patti Lee
Editor: Carl Pfirman, Tyler Hubby
85 minutes

Jennifer Arnold on the road to bringing to "A Small Act" to Sundance...

I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I was one of those geeks who rounded up the neighborhood kids and forced everyone to put on plays or magic shows. By junior high I inherited a SVHS camera (very cutting edge at the time). When I was in high school, my dad got me a still camera and my mom introduced me to “adventure travel,” which was basically ultra-cheap backpacking to moderately safe areas. I kept trying to encapsulate all these new worlds into images and bring them home to my friends. For me, that’s what filmmaking is all about, taking an audience on a trip and bringing them into a whole new world.

I came across this story because I was trying to sponsor a child in Kenya. I went to University of Nairobi back in the 1990s. I made a lot of great friends there and we stayed in touch. I called a friend (Jane Wanjiru, who is in the movie) and asked her which education foundation would be reputable. She said that she and her cousin, Chris Mburu, had started their own small fund, [and] she told me about Chris’ search for his sponsor, and I thought, "That story would make a great film." Then she told me that the fund’s board members were going select new kids in a few months. The next thing I knew I was on an airplane.

Director Jennifer Arnold. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

There was such a disparity between my approach to the film and the realities of shooting it. The approach, in theory, was magnificently planned. I wrote a rough script, structuring out what I thought might happen during shooting. Patti Lee (producer and DP) and I had elaborate shot lists. I can speak some Swahili, so I felt confident I could get what I needed in Kenya. Unfortunately, in the village where we filmed, everyone speaks Kikuyu at home (we couldn’t understand a word while shooting our verite scenes). There were five main characters and only one camera, so we never had time to get the beauty shots we wanted.

Kenya fell into unexpected conflict, something which changed the original script completely. So the original approach was “be prepared," but ultimately the reality was more like “be prepared… for anything.”

This project came about so quickly, that there was barely any pre-production, let alone development. We shot the film very bare bones. I directed and did the production sound, and Patti shot and we both produced. The challenges came in post, that’s when we had to crystallize the story, do most of the fund-raising, and really put the film together.

This film is very empowering. At its core, the film’s message is that each of us can make a big difference in the world, just by doing the little bit that we can. That might sound cheesy, but it is totally true and I think audiences will be very inspired by the story.

Arnold on her inspirations...

This sounds strange, but the film we would always talk about was "Woman Under the Influence," not as cinematic inspiration, but more as motivation. We made this film with very little money and ran the whole thing out of our house. So we always had a bunch of interns, the editors and other people in and out. We couldn’t pay anyone much, so every day we would cook lunch and everyone sat down for a meal. We kept joking about that spaghetti scene in "Woman Under the Influence" and how Cassavetes cut that film in his garage, while Gena Rowlands cooked for the crew. Somehow thinking of that kept us going. I guess this is proof that I’m still a film geek.

...and what's in store for her the future...

I do narrative and documentary, so I’m on the lookout for a new script or a new documentary project, but I haven’t found the right one yet. Maybe one of your readers has a great story they want to share with me.


[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

This article is related to: Interviews, A Small Act