Now, let’s finish the conversation with the man who put “The First Grader” on-screen.
W: According to the Walker Art Center’s program you thought “it was a really challenging movie to do.”
The challenge now is to actually to get the film to play to audiences. We’ve got distribution across America, which is absolutely wonderful. Because films like this, that’ve got just as good of production values as bigger movies, just as beautiful stories, that aren’t necessarily the “Thors” and “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” the –
W: The blockbusters -
There has to be a place for smaller films – not smaller in their kind of scope, but in terms of their machine behind them. Because audiences like to go the cinema, to sit in the dark, and go through these emotional stories, and there has to be a place for it. That’s gonna be the challenge. Getting them to the cinema, because we haven’t got posters on every single bus going by, we haven’t got advertisements in the papers. Audiences need these stories. There should be a place in the modern cinema.
W: What has you really jazzed about this story, this film that journalists haven’t asked about? “This is a really cool thing, but nobody ever asks me about it…” Do you have something like that that you wanna get out there?
Before we were making the film, I talked to the creative team, and we talked about those hardened critics that want to see a certain kind of film, a feel-good movie, it makes you feel celebratory when you come out, make you laugh, makes you cry. What we wanted to do, what’s unusual about this story, coming out of Africa, where so many African movies have to do with huge issues: genocide, famine.
W: Corruption. Violence.
All of that. This felt like something different; this one was a celebratory film, A film about hope – in the true sense of the word. It wasn’t sugar-coated. Because those scenes actually happened.
We don’t want the film to be like spinach; you know this film is really good for you. We were very, very aware of that. I think it’s very easy to dismiss the film. It’s come out of Telluride, the snowball of the film festivals, and the audiences who’ve seen it. It’s very easy to dismiss it as a little, tiny film, but actually it’s not that at all. Again, there has to be a place for this in cinema, but it’s getting harder and harder because blockbusters are so all-consuming of the territory, and the cinema space. It’s hard to get your movie through.
Just like the majority block specific history lessons, making knowledge hard to get through, only now the UK newspapers are covering recent headlines about “found” and damning Mau Mau records. Throughout April 2011, the “Times of London” ran almost weekly stories on the “discovery” of damning files previously thought to have been long-ago lost or destroyed. They’ve a paywall just like the “New York Times,” so providing a link would be foolish.
- Kimani Maruge whose story goes toe-to-toe with flashy summer movies
W: As “The First Grader” raises the topic of the Mau Mau rebellion, that reminded me of a documentary that Bill Cosby made, “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed?” I thought, considering how English folks were barely taught this, and how some modern-day Kenyans and Kikuyu might not know even the basics of the Mau Mau situation, was it lost, was it stolen, or did it stray? You mentioned you weren’t told much of this when you were in school.
Not at all! It was the stuff that’d been in the press at the time; the stuff about the Mau Mau going into people’s houses, killing them while they sleep in their beds. You didn’t hear that 1.2 million Kikyyu had been tortured, had been incarcerated, had been rounded up in concentration camps. There was many, many camps across Kenya filled with young and old men and women from the Kikuyu, and that story has never really surfaced.
This documentation has come to mind just recently. There’s not many of the Mau Mau veterans left. K’mani was 89. When they talk about compensation or acknowledgment it’s too little too late. At least the truth will come out now, with the missing files that’ve been discovered.
As an aside I mentioned, to Mr. Chadwick, my having sat near a Kenyan woman, a Kikuyu, at the screening at the Walker Art Center, who had few criticisms about the film, but wished that the tribalism would’ve been less mentioned.
The BBC were very concerned about me going there. In everyday banter and everyday conversations tribal divisions would come up. And yes they are trying to move on; I do say that. Everyday on the radio the DJs would be talking about the differences of the tribes. I know where she’s coming from. A lot in the Western press of the tribal differences in Africa are always negatively drawn.
Jane Obinchu says, in the film, we’ve moved away from that. I had a young cameraman saying “you know, everyone says on the surface that we’re all moving away from it,” but he said “you know it’s still very, very much present, and if you speak to anyone, the younger generation, it’s still very much present. I would pick it up from what I was hearing on the radio, from the Kenyans I was working with. And there’s a lot to celebrate about the different tribes. I heard all the time around me. It’s a Kenyan story; you can’t shy away from it. I mean Maruge himself wasn’t a perfect man by any stretch. It’s been a very one-sided story.
W: I was skeptical about what seemed to be indulgent, cheesy lines at the climax: “Maybe one day a Kenyan will be in the White House. Yes we Can!”
So 2003, exactly when Kenya announced free education, Obama went as a Senator; I heard this like three weeks before we started shooting. (In reality, Mr. Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, taking office in 2005.) And also I was hearing on the radio from a guy, who talked to everybody. And so Obama came here as a Senator; this is why every time I was going somewhere on a bus, somebody said, “Obama sat here;” Michelle and him had been on this Mutatu bus. This radio DJ who was the voice of the people.
Basically because as a student I saw “Do the Right Thing,” loved that film. Sam Jackson was in that film; Jackson was hysterical! He was this voice; it was a brilliant, inspiring film for me. I saw that in Manchester. I remembered that. And there was no real humor in that film (First Grader.) So I managed to track down the guy; he’s called Churchill. He was at the African MTV awards. He brought the house down. I managed to track him down. I said, “Listen. I’d love for you to be part of this film.” He says, “I know Maruge. He was on my show!, on my breakfast show.” He said, “I’ll definitely do it. Are you gonna say about Obama?”
“I always said he’d be the headmaster of the world; I always said it, from 2003, he was the headmaster of the world. And he said, “I was the one, right from the beginning, and that’s why he’s in the White House!” And he said, build me a little studio just outside of where I’ve got my radio show. Be there, and I’ll give you a half an hour.” So that’s where that came from, from the true source. Everywhere I went, once I got Churchill involved, they said “We always knew Obama was gonna be President. Even way back in 2003, when they came, we knew, we just knew he was gonna be President.” That’s why I put that in there.