*”The First Grader” is an amazing story of an octogenarian’s burning desire to learn how to read after the Kenyan government granted a free education to all.
‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ being one of the best films released in 2008, The Film Strip asked its director Justin Chadwick why he took on a project that hardly matched the pomp and pageantry of the British aristocracy.
“It was the chance to do something that was inspiring and uplifting,” he told me. “It wasn’t issue driven; it made me feel good and I knew it was about children and the hope of children and education. So I got on a plane and I went to Kenya.” Based on a real life person, Chadwick had to shoot around “The First Grader,” who is now in the fifth grade because didn’t want his lessons interrupted because of a movie being made based on his struggle. “This guy is amazing,” Chadwick insisted.
Since the script was written before President Barack Obama took office here in the USA, Chadwick was asked to explain how the last line in the film was so apropos.
“I saw a film when I was a student called ‘Do the Right Thing,’ and Samuel L. Jackson played the voice of the people. And when I was going around Kenya, the story’s set in 2003 as you know, there were matatu buses everywhere. We would drive for hours and you could always hear the radio. It was said in 2003 that Obama visited there when he was senator and that he rode on the matatu.
“It was Kenyan folklore, whether it happened or not. So every time you got on one of these matatus, and that’s the only form of transport that we had, we got ‘Obama sat there. Michelle sat there. The kids were in the front.’ And there were all these debates on the radio about ‘which tribe, where he came from, was Michelle Kenyan?’ Everywhere I went there was this banter between the tribes and between the people, so I thought ‘I’ve got to make a character that is like a chorus.’ And I met this wonderful DJ (Daniel Ndambuki (Churchill). I heard him first on the radio and then I heard him on the MTV Africa awards. This is why I cast him. I said, ‘Listen, I’m doing this film about Maruge,’ and he goes, ‘I know that guy! I know that guy! He’s been on my show!’
“While the film’s uplifting and it was moving at the end, I just thought you know what? The Kenyan spirit has got a lot of humor. You know how you hear so much in the press about the tribal differences and they’re always at war, but you don’t hear about that part. Sure, there are problems but I didn’t want to play that up. There is great banter between the tribes and the different people in Kenya. And the humor of the Kenyans was hilarious. On these matatus, we’d be driving around and we were there for hours, you’d hear these guys and they’d have this kind of mix between Swahili and English, which is Sheng, which is like it’s own kind of language. Sometimes I’d understand it, sometimes I wouldn’t, but the guys I was with, they were just weeping with laughter, and I thought we’ve got to get [on film].”