Posted June 2, 2011 by Beth Webb - Events Editor in Films
 
 

First Grader, The


This is certainly a new direction for Spooks director Justin Chadwick, whose previous feature length film was period dramatisation The Other Boleyn Girl. In light of the atrocities enforced by the British invasion on Kenyan Soil, a fiercely keen Mau Mau veteran Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo) sets out to learn under the promise of “free education for all” under a revised government.

This is certainly a new direction for Spooks director Justin Chadwick, whose previous feature length film was period dramatisation The Other Boleyn Girl. In light of the atrocities enforced by the British invasion on Kenyan Soil, a fiercely keen Mau Mau veteran Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo) sets out to learn under the promise of “free education for all” under a revised government.

Maruge’s struggle for literacy is juxtaposed against his struggle for freedom after the slaughtering of his family by British colonies. Shots of mouthing sounds and holding up letters of the alphabet lead to unbearable sequences of torture and humiliation, that are graphic and at times drawn out at excruciating length. Litondo proves a sturdy vehicle of determination, conveying simple emotions delivered like sucker punches to the viewer as he turns up every day at the school gates until he is allowed in.

His saving grace is Naomie Harris headteacher Mrs Obinchu, whose gratitude to the Mau Mau and faith in an educated Kenya compels her to defy oppression from higher authorities and threats from local parents to help her elder student.

Chadwick uses a steady pace and sincere framing to carefully observe the journey to education that is so easily taken for granted in the developed world, and it’s obvious why the feature was selected for this years Human Rights Watch festival in London. The casting of Litondo is necessary, but it’s Harris’s drive that is worth taking notice for, as she is thrown from the joys of teaching the threats made to herself and her husband for helping Maruge’s learning. There are no motivating speeches or Brokovich style monologues, but her presence seems force enough to shout down opposition.

Even scenes that should be written off as clinched are far from; Maruge leading the children in a chant for freedom in the schoolyard makes Mel Gibson look like a kitten, and the sight of the elder showing up at the school gates in full school uniform, including socks in accordance to the education guidelines will not fail to make you smile.

It’s scenes like this in fact that make the impact of the torture sequences and inhumanity all the more powerful. So sparse is the spectrum of emotion conveyed in this dramatisation that it’s difficult not to absorb the sheer horror endured by the people of Kenya, and consequently the recent news coverage of those that were victimised demanding compensation all the more haunting.

Those that followed Maruge’s story in the national press will be aware of the outcome, and it’s one of those struggles for justice that warrants a bigger reward than is ever received. Chadwick doesn’t try and gloss over the past; this is a series of events that evoked horror amongst a nation. What is does do is end with a positive look to an educated and developed future which, thanks to people like Maruge and Mrs Obinchi, can now be available to anyone.


Beth Webb - Events Editor

 
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