Mau-Mau warrior shows true grit

2011-09-16 07:50

In Kenya, an old man called his political leader’s bluff by responding in earnest to his president’s proclamation of free education for all.

Late in the winter of his life, former Mau-Mau warrior Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge enrolled at his local primary school. It was 2004 and he was 84 years old.

The silver-haired geezer had sacrificed his youth to the Kenyan freedom fight and with it, a shot at learning how to read and write.

The story of his new struggle for literacy is told in a new movie titled The First Grader, which opened in South African cinemas on Friday.

Though it was officially launched in July at the 32nd Durban International Film Festival, the film’s British director, Justin Chadwick, couldn’t make it to that shindig.

But he’s finally in the country for a series of ceremonial premieres. 7 caught up with him for a chat about his first African cinematic project.

Chadwick’s filmography includes hits such as The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), which featured Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson; and Stolen (2001), a TV movie staring English actress Anna Krippa and Iulia Iarova.

It takes a few moments of waiting before the 43-year-old Manchester native finally appears. He descends into the basement preview room of United Pictures’ Sandton offices with the energy of a child, eager and jolly with a beaming smile and an obvious British accent.

Occasionally pushing his long mane backwards, Chadwick says: “The First Grader is a celebratory film coming out of Africa . . . It celebrates the human spirit and one man’s commitment to learn.”

His cast features a host of talented players from Kenya, South Africa and Britain.

These include Vusi Kunene as a government bureaucrat named Mr Kipruto; and Tony Kgoroge as Charles Obinchu, the husband of teacher Jane Obinchu, played by British star Naomie Harris.

The central role is ably handled by former Kenyan newscaster Oliver Musila Litondo.

The film opens with a shot of an acacia tree at dawn, then we are shown a machete tilling the soil. It’s an age-worn Mau-Mau warrior on his vegetable patch.

The scene is wrapped with a montage of the old Maruge’s flashbacks to his youth and family, murdered by the British colonial forces in the 1950s.

Once the painful historical context is established, we switch to a bustling scene of hundreds of infectiously innocent children running to school.

A radio announcer broadcasts the news of the free-education regime. And so the set, a remote village in Kenya’s mountainous Rift Valley, comes to life.

It’s dusty, loud, focused and strategically comic.

About the laughter element, Chadwick says: “I wanted that to be a big part of the film . . . It’s that great Kenyan sense of humour.”

And also, I assume, because the story could easily have been too intense due to the bloody political memory involved.
But the fact of making this film speaks to another historical moment.

As a piece of cinema, The First Grader goes a long way towards building important industry bridges.

“It’s an antidote to all those big American films that dominate the theatres,” says Chadwick.

He indicates further that unlike most big blockbusters made in Kenya (Lara Croft: Tomb Rider, The Constant Gardener and King Solomon’s Mines, for example), locals were involved at the highest levels here.

Sam Feuer, the journalist who along with his colleagues read about Maruge’s story in the LA Times and went to find him in Kenya, is co-producer and just about the only American on the project, while Harris is the only non-continental African in the cast.

The bulk of skills came out of South Africa and Kenya.

This speaks to issues in the development of the African movie industry.

Chadwick sees African cinema suffering from the same challenges as the rest of the industry – overshadowed by Hollywood.

He says: “Cinemas are dominated by Hollywood films. They (Americans) have a huge machine behind them.

Independent movies have to rely on word of mouth and little or no publicity,” he says.

Speaking on the phone from his Joburg home, actor Tony Kgoroge suspects that Africans don’t tell their own stories enough.

He says: “Our stories are always told through some outsider’s hand.”

Shooting from the hip, he asks: “How many African filmmakers have been funded in the past 10 years?”

Kgoroge insists that it has nothing to do with the lack or presence of talent. He points to the likes of Tebogo Matlhatsi and Khalo Matabani as examples of local filmmakers who’ve proved themselves many times.

Chadwick agrees, saying: “There is good production value, good actors and good programme value here (in Africa), though it’s hard to compete against those big (Hollywood) films.”

Hence he adds that “there has to be a place in modern culture for different stories from all over the world to reach audiences”.

He has the same hopes for The First Grader, which he says “must be watched together. People must take their friends and family to the cinema hall for it”.

Chadwick is also clear about how he wants audiences to respond to this film, saying: “I hope that it moves them and they find it true because it’s a true story about a man who never gave up the will to learn.”

Maruge passed away just weeks before shooting commenced in 2009. He was 89 years old.

“Even as he was dying, he had a teacher coming to see him. He reached Grade 5,” says Chadwick.

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