The First Grader

2011-09-22 17:54
What it's about:

When an old villager insists on attending school so he can learn to read, everyone learns that it's never too late to dream. Set in a mountain village in Kenya, the film tells the remarkable true and uplifting story of a proud old Mau Mau veteran who is determined to seize his last chance to learn to read and write – and so ends up joining a class alongside six-year-olds. Together, he and his young teacher face fierce resistance, but, ultimately, they win through and find a new way of overcoming the burdens of the colonial past.

What we thought:

The First Grader is an inspirational true-life story about Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge, who at 84 years of age decides to attend a primary school to learn to read once the Kenyan government makes education free for all.

The story is intercut with flashes from Maruge's past, some 50 years earlier, as a Mau Mau rebel fighting for independence from the British and caught in a battle against colonial sympathisers. These scenes reveal an incredibly violent and tragic chapter in Kenya's history, one that British director Justin Chadwick admits he himself did not know about until he came to researching the film.

Set in a stunning remote village, the movie focuses on a ramshackle primary school, classrooms overflowing with young minds eager to learn at this first opportunity at an education. Maruge's presence is not appreciated by some parents who believe he is taking a valuable place in the classroom that should go to a child who "doesn't have one foot in the grave". The school's dutiful headmistress, Mrs Obinchu (played by future Bond girl Naomie Harris) rebels against her superiors and does all she can to help Maruge achieve his dream.

It emerges that the reason Maruge is so determined to learn to read is so that he can finally understand a letter he had received, many years ago it would seem by the state of the document. There's a sense that whether the letter brings good or bad news, it will only serve to re-open the deep, gaping wounds that Maruge has battled to keep sealed over the course of his long and difficult life.

Though the gravity of some of the flashback scenes are hard to bear at some moments, these are balanced with some truly wonderful scenes of Maruge enjoying his time at the school, interacting with his six-year-old classmates, teaching them old war songs and finally enjoying the promise of a future - for his country, if not for himself - that he was never able to in his time.

The cast all give soulful and touching performances, and the schoolkids in particular, who are all from the village where the film was shot, are a joy to watch. They will steal your heart with just one smile.

An inspirational and uplifting true-life story about Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge, who at 84 years of age decides to attend a primary school to learn how to read.
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