by director Justin Chadwick
Making The First Grader was the most brilliant adventure. The country of Kenya is visually stunning, beautiful, and the people so warm hearted and generous. There is the most amazing energy that pulses everywhere. My first trip was meant to be brief, a chance to meet the 89-year-old Kimani Maruge and to look at locations so we could shoot a few days of general shots in Kenya and then shoot the bulk of the film in South Africa where there was seen to be a more established film infrastructure.
Kimani was in a hospice in the centre of Nairobi. Although he was very ill he asked for a teacher to come into the hospice and teach him every day. He refused to be old and wouldn't sit with the other elderly patients. I met with him and we talked for hours. I knew I had to stay and asked my producers to let me extend my time there. Over the next days Kimani talked about his past, about his wife, children and the importance of the land. He also talked about the real joy he had going to school and the pleasure and battles he'd had learning to read.
Through these conversations the main themes of the film emerged. Kimani, even at this stage in his life, had an amazing energy and a determination that was inspiring. He held education as a key to the future. Over and over he talked about 'The power is in the pen.' In these meetings and other stories word of mouth spread and I started to hear about a bloody unknown past of Kenya and Britain.
I was now determined to shoot the film in Kenya. The BBC totally backed that decision and although we lost a large amount of the budget because of this, it meant that a small team could make this film with a predominantly Kenyan, African cast and crew and we were free to make the film in the way that we wanted to. I chose a small remote school in the Rift valley as our location and included all the pupils of the school in the film, moulding the characters in the film to the children at the school. In the end the whole community played a part in the film, grandparents, parents and their children. These children are the heart of the film. They had never seen a film or television and were incredibly shy Kikuyu, Maasi children who walked miles to school everyday across a harsh terrain who had thirst for knowledge and a bright intelligence that was truly humbling. The scenes in the film are not those children acting but them reacting to a lesson or event in front of them. When Agnes talks to Maruge in the playground, in that scene she is asking about him and talking about her future.
I set out to make a film that, although dealing with Britain and Kenya's troubled past, was predominantly a story that was uplifting and moving that had the vitality, energy and humour of the people who inspired it.