Written for Spoonfed, London Film Festival in October 2010:
For a Mancunian director, Justin Chadwick has chosen a very American title for his film, The First Grader: perhaps Kenyans do use the term ‘first graders’ but it doesn’t ever actually appear in the film. Chadwick has also chosen a rather formulaic structure through which to tell the touching true story of Maruge, an 84 year-old man who decides to go to elementary school for the first time.
Chadwick has a weighty character on his hands and a worthwhile story driven by themes of hope, tenacity and development; but in choosing such a conventional structure, he fails to set this film apart. Maruge, on the other hand, played by Oliver Litondo, is a standout character portrayed flawlessly by a remarkable actor.
Inspired by the government’s decision to provide “free education for all” and driven by a letter from the president he can’t read, Maruge decides to make use of the chance for an education. He joins the primary school class of inspirational Teacher Jane, a character completely owned by Naomi Harris who creates a teacher we all wish we had.
Maruge and Jane face animosity from the parents of the children in the class – all brilliant non-actors – mixed interest from the press and bureaucracy from superintendents and city bigwigs. The view that an education is wasted on an old man pervades the film, as do the things owed to Maruge for his part in fighting the British occupation of Kenya. These themes elevate The First Grader and Chadwick handles the complexity of education in a developing country with delicacy and warmth. He reminds us of the oft-forgotten elderly members of society who continue to carry with them their country’s past: a universal point that rings louder and truer for countries with a colonial history, like Kenya.
Chadwick also champions education as the Kenyans do. He’s clearly in love with this country, its landscape and its people. His scenes depict the past conflicts Maruge has lived through alongside his current struggle for education. His shots hone in on the minute detail of sowing seed by hand and writing numbers with a blunt pencil, and they all weave seamlessly into Maruge’s issues with his old eyes and ears.
A moving film with an enthralling cast, inspirational characters and a weighty history, Justin Chadwick’s The First Grader is only let down by its predictable structure.
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