THE FIRST GRADER. Starring Naomie Harris, Oliver Litondo, and Tony Kgoroge. Directed by Justin Chadwick. Rated M (Mature themes, violence and brief nudity). 103 minutes.
At first, we might think that his is a feelgood film. An old man hears that the Kenyan government states that all Kenyans have a right to free education. He applies but is rejected. He does not give up and a sympathetic teacher takes on his cause, battles for him. All that is in the film, but there is a lot more.
The First Grader states that it is based on a true story. It also gives information at the opening about the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. This means that different audiences, especially for those who have a lived experience and memories of this period, will have different stances.
The film is very critical of the British, their occupation, colonial presuppositions, their military tactics against the Mau Mau, interrogation and torture. Kenya eventually achieved independence in the 1960s.
British residents and landowners who not only experienced dispossession but were the targets of savage violence will not look so benignly on this story of a former Mau Mau who had made the oath of loyalty to the movement and would not renounce it.
Another difficulty in Kenya was the tribalism – and, in recent years, has been shown to be still a difficulty. The Kukuku were the core of the Mau Mau and there are still conflicts between the Kukuyu and other tribes.
Outsiders who look back at the racial and colonial injustices in African countries (and Australia and Latin America) will see justice and injustice on both sides and will ask how to progress from this conflicted past.
Oliver Litindo plays the illiterate farmer, Maruge, portraying him in the vein of a rural Mandela. There are flashbacks to his torture and the death of his wife and children. He can also have his tough moments as the parents of children resent his taking up a scarce desk in overcrowded schools, the criticisms of the old idle men, the hostility of the adult men.
Naoemie Harris plays the sympathetic teacher, Teacher Jane, who takes Maruge in, coaches him, finds that he is a good influence on the children, encouraging them with their own language, with singing and dancing and the issues of freedom. Jane is married to a husband working in Nairobi in diplomacy. The Education Department is not helpful in Maruge’s case and an inspector is actively opposed and intrusive. The character of Jane is the ideal educator with a concern for justice. The fight for Maruge takes its toll on her life, her marriage and her career.
Evernutally, Maruge takes action himself, facing the Kenyan bureaucrats in their comfortable offices, with their suits and ties, reminiscent of their British predecessors.
The education situation reminds us of many other stories of teachers and classes but engagingly so. So are the bureaucratic struggles, but that means we are urged to feel the injustices. The characters may seem idealised or stereotyped, but the film is trying to makes its point through these confrontations.
Since the Kenyan situation, past and present, may not be familiar to many audiences, The First Grader offers an opportunity to remember, to face regrets, and to ask what are the best directions for the future. Maruge, before he died in 2009, addressed the United Nations on issues of education in Africa.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 17 2011.