The First Grader
Directed by Justin Chadwick
Starring Oliver Litondo, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Sam Feuer
The First Grader, directed by Justin Chadwick (The Bill), is the true story of an 84-year-old Kenyan man. Set in the Rift Valley in Kenya, Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge was a Mau Mau freedom fighter against the British in the 1950s. Under British colonisation, Maruge was forced to work for a white man. He never got the chance to go to school and get an education. After he was tortured and his family was murdered by the British, Maruge was left with nothing, but in 2003, when the Kenyan Government declared free education for all, Maruge saw his chance. The chance to learn.
The film captures the struggles of Maruge’s life, past and present. It depicts how he fought the British to liberate Kenya and how he now tries to claim his right to an education. Set against the beautiful Kenyan wilderness, Justin Chadwick has managed to capture the spirit of the country with some brilliant shots. Originally planned to be filmed in South Africa, it was felt that a more authentic and effective story could be told in Kenya.
One of the major struggles that the filmmakers had was whether to travel Africa, casting the children they needed to fill the classrooms in the movie. Once in Kenya, though, they realised that there were children there who were perfectly capable of re-enacting their day-to-day life. They would wake up in the morning, work for an hour or so and then walk six to seven kilometres to school over the vast plains.
Chadwick tried to acquire an all-Kenyan cast, and ended up casting Oliver Litondo as Maruge. Litondo used to be a journalist in Kenya and eventually became an anchorman for the local television station. He had always had an interest in film and theatre acting - in 1974 he acted in The Wilby Conspiracy, which starred Oscar winners Sydney Poitier and Michael Caine. Since then he has acted in numerous films and theatre productions.
This movie was special, though. Belinda Auma, Litondo's wife, has said that because of his love for children, acting in The First Grader was like being a "fish in water". Other Kenyan actors cast in this movie were Shoki Mokgapa and Alfred Munyua, who played teachers and colleagues to the Principal, played by British-born Naomie Harris, who acted in Pirates of the Caribbean. Her husband in the movie was played by South African-born Tony Kgoroge, who has been in several films set in Africa, such as Invictus, Blood Diamond, Lord of War and Hotel Rwanda.
The First Grader really manages to capture the life of Maruge. With some fairly confronting flashback scenes contrasted by the most joyful dance and classroom moments, it will have you laughing and crying and by the end you will have been told the most remarkable story in the most beautiful way possible.
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Articles Written by Luke D
Reviews written by Luke D
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