LAFF ‘10 | “A Small Act” Director Jennifer Arnold: “Be Prepared for Anything”

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

Decades ago, Hilde Back, a gray-haired Holocaust survivor, began sending $15 a month from Sweden to Kenya to fund a child’s primary school education. To her, that amount felt inconsequential but for Chris Mburu, it changed his life. When no other Kenyan family could afford to send their children to high school, Mburu went, and that was enough to springboard him to Harvard. Now a U.N. human rights lawyer, he’s founded a new scholarship fund for the next generation of smart kids with few options. And he’s named it for the benefactor he never met. Until now.

Jennifer Arnold’s colorful and moving documentary weaves Back and Mburu’s intertwined stories with the current plight of three Kenyan eighth graders desperate to be their village’s next success story. Their shot at a bright future come courtesy of the Hilde Back Education Fund and the generosity of a distant benefactor. As the elderly Hilde visits the village in which she sowed hope, sighing, “”I’m simply not used to being a hero,”” we’re inspired to witness firsthand that one person, without a doubt, can make a difference. [Synopsis provided by LAFF]

A Small Act
Free Screenings
(USA, 2010, 88 mins, HDCam)
Directed By: Jennifer Arnold
Executive Producer: Joan Huang
Producers: Jennifer Arnold, Patti Lee, Jeffrey Soros
Screenwriter: Jennifer Arnold
Cinematographer: Patti Lee
Editors: Carl Pfirman, Tyler Hubby
Cast: Chris Mburu, Patrick Kimani, Jane Wanjiru Muigai, Hilde Back

[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE is profiling the Narrative and Documentary Competition filmmakers who are screening their films at the Los Angeles Film Festival.]

Jennifer Arnold on the road to bringing to “A Small Act” to LAFF…

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.

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…

Director Jennifer Arnold. [Photo courtesy of LAFF]

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.

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