Foreign Film Fridays 02: The First Grader

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. -Nelson Mandela

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Original Title: The 1st Grader
Year: 2010
Country: Kenya & UK
Language: English/Kikuyu
Subtitles: English
Length: 1hr 38 min
Availability: Putlocker

A beautifully poignant biographical film, The First Grader touches the soul in ways so few films can ever hope to. Based on the life of Kimani Maruge (who at the age of 84 decided to enroll in elementary school) and his first teacher Mrs. Jane Obinchu, the movie touches upon a myriad of human issues: the worth of life, the sacrifices we make to survive, and the importance of free universal education.

Set in a village far from the comforts of modern city life,  the story follows Maruge on his journey to pursue an education, particularly in his desire to learn to read and write, and also focuses on the struggles of rural teachers to provide quality education for 200 plus students. The story is given additional depth as it is broken between Maruge’s memories of his time as a Mau Mau rebel and the relatively peaceful man he has become in the present but who has yet to fully let go of the past.

There are many beautiful scenes of Kenya in this film, rich and vibrant, and give the story a beautiful backdrop for the cinematographically inclined. More than scenes, which are truly inspiring, it’s the characters that will stay with you long after the credits have finished rolling.

Maruge is the representation of Kenya’s crossroads in history: he is the everyday man with the weight of a terrible past hanging across his shoulders. He can’t even sharpen a pencil, much less hold it correctly, but his desire to become literate enough to read a letter from the government is all he needs to keep him going. Even as he is barred from elementary school in the village and forced to walk to the nearest adult school in the city, you root for him to win but it breaks your heart to watch him continually turned away from opportunities and especially when his own village turns against him. A man his age, or so he is often told, should be resting in peace in preparation for his final exit from life. Maruge, however, heartily disagrees… And it makes you truly wonder when was the last time you pursued your dreams with such passion and unabashed shamelessness, much less when was the last time you felt so fired up to learn.

By comparison, Mrs. Obinchu is the modern woman: brave, educated, and unafraid to carve a place for herself in the world, but also unencumbered by the past. She is from a poor family and has worked to the bone to become who she is. For these reasons she can see a bit of herself in Maruge and the two form a quick and steady friendship, despite the generation gap and the opposing political sides of their families during the rebellion. Young, full of idealism, and an intellectual to the end, Mrs. Obinchu does everything in her power to keep Maruge in school.

We are nothing if we cannot read. We’re useless. -The First Grader

The First Grader is a rare glimpse into a whole new world that is far and away from anything that anyone born in a first world country will probably ever know. One would expect it to be either a campy film, with one dimensional characters full of good cheer and ready to battle illiteracy, or a very deep and disturbing look at the politics of the conflict that led to Kenya’s independence. But in reality, the breadth of human emotion is expressed in each character and situation. Even the patient and good-natured Mrs. Obinchu has her melt downs when past tribal tensions force her to confront the choices of her family’s past and when she must fight for the right of her oldest and most motivated pupil to remain in her school. She is a veritable storm of sheer will and force. I can barely manage a room of thirty-five screaming seven-year-old children for six straight periods, let alone 200 students from all ages and educational backgrounds for a whole day. All the respects were given as I watched this and began to wish that every last one of my teachers had been a Mrs. Obinchu.

For those too afraid to watch a movie saturated with political and military undertones, this film is the perfect balance between serious and idealism without losing the weight of its message. We, who live in societies that have been long removed from the fight for survival and freedom, have a responsibility to the rest of humankind to help in any way that we can. It brings home the truth that one society’s treasure can be a public ally funded institution that is taken for granted by another.

The true story of Kimani Maruge is equally inspiring but ends quite sadly in 2009, when Mr. Maruge died of stomach cancer.

 

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