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INTERVIEW | “The First Grader” Director Aims to Uplift and Make You Think

INTERVIEW | "The First Grader" Director Aims to Uplift and Make You Think

The First Grader,” the moving true story of an 84-year-old Kenyan villager who fought for his right to go to school, finally lands in select theaters this Friday, May 13, after a long festival run following its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in 2010. In an Email interview with indieWIRE, director Justin Chadwick opened up about bringing this moving story to the screen.

In a small, remote mountain top primary school in the Kenyan bush, hundreds of children are jostling for a chance for the free education newly promised by the Kenyan government. One new applicant causes astonishment when he knocks on the door of the school. He is Maruge (Oliver Litondo), an old Mau Mau veteran in his eighties, who is desperate to learn to read at this late stage of his life. He fought for the liberation of his country and now feels he must have the chance of an education so long denied – even if it means sitting in a classroom alongside six-year-olds. Moved by his passionate plea, head teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), supports his struggle to gain admission and together they face fierce opposition from parents and officials who don’t want to waste a precious school place on such an old man. [Synopsis courtesy of the film’s website]

Responses courtesy of “The First Grader” director Justin Chadwick.

From the stage to the screen…

My English teacher saw how I was in class and saw that I was an avid reader and thought my energy and love of stories could be channeled in a theater youth group. Manchester Youth theater, then the National Student Theater Company and later my degree course all helped form my love of telling stories and directing. After college I funded my short films with acting roles in film and TV. I learned my craft through the great opportunities British television gave me as a director. I really learned by the experience. I love working with actors whatever their experience and this has always been key to my work.

Bringing the elements together…

I liked that this could be an emotional, funny, uplifting film that was based on a true inspiring story but also dealt with hard hitting issues. This seemed modern and relevant to me. Meeting Kimani Maruge and spending time with him and being in Kenya was the turning point. Out of that time stories and themes emerged. The beauty, warmth and energy of the people and place were all so powerful. I knew that we had the elements.

Keeping it real and beautiful…

I went to Kenya with a very small group of nine people. The rest of the cast and crew were Kenyan and African. I chose one school and all the pupils were involved. I watched, observed and listened and then molded the characters in the film to the children who were the most amazing bright beautiful Maasi and Kikuyu children who had not seen a film or TV and had this amazing energy and a humbling attitude to education. A real desire to learn. From the outset I wanted the film to feel true, as an outsider I wanted to be true to the people whose stories I was telling. I also wanted the film to be epic and intimate with photography that caught the natural performances but was considered and beautiful. Rob Hardy and I wanted the audience to really see and experience the film in a way that was unique and true.

Getting it made…

Director Justin Chadwick. [Photo by Kerry Brown]

I can honestly say that the inclusive way and ethos in which we made the film from the outset meant that we were really trusted and supported by the communities we were working with. This gave the film an energy and a momentum. We were just making the film whatever and if a challenge arose like a money fell through we just carried on and did things in a different way. I was determined to make the film. We never compromised the look or heart of the film but it’s amazing what you can do without. A lot of passion, belief and a love of what were doing willed this film into production.

Agnes talking to Maruge in the playground was very emotional. I’d just asked her to go and talk to him as he was sitting alone. She started to talk to him telling him that things would be alright and that she was going to be a doctor and would heal him. This was the shyest, most withdrawn child in the school. She made everyone cry that day.

A magical shoot…

The riot at the end was wild. This was a true story the real teacher Jane had told me about the children from her school rising up and closing the gates of the school and throwing rocks at the new head teacher as the parents brought him to the school after Jane was sacked. Our school children could not believe they were allowed to play out this scene. Those are their parents and grandparents on the other side of the gates. You can see the complete excitement in the children’s faces. Massive and Kikuyu children have the utmost respect for their elders. To go against their parents was a huge stand. The parents started chanting and singing. That was an amazing day. Every day had it’s own magical moments . I didn’t want it to end.

The real challenge is now — getting people into the cinema as the film has been so warmly received and supported around the world winning many audience awards. It is important that alongside the blockbusters there are stories that can inspire and audiences can experience together in the cinema. We don”t a huge machine on this film so I hope that people talk and tell their friends.

Future plans and giving back…

I’ve just shot a film for BBC 1, a thriller that deals with child trafficking called “Stolen.” This again mixes raw actors with experienced stars. I’m developing other films for later but for now I want to support this film in every way I can. I’m also taking the film back to Kenya, to the children and communities who helped make the film.

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