I spoke with Justin Chadwick, director of “The First Grader,” one day after having seen it at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center – for free! Always the right price, but particularly so during a toilet bowl economy. As with many independent film-makers, he is down-to-earth and pretty much a straight shooter.
Will Wright: It’s common and typical for Anglo film-makers to make movies about black people, where the anchor of the story isn’t black him or herself. It’s refreshing to see that there isn’t a heroic, superior Anglo who comes in to “save the school.” We had “Dangerous Minds,” 15 years ago, and “Freedom Writers.” How concerned were you, being a man from Manchester, who wasn’t introduced to all the dynamic and violent politics coming in and doing this story?
Justin Chadwick: Well I was very aware from the outset that I am from Manchester England. And I had not been to Kenya before, and it dealt with a period of history, as well as Kenyan history that hadn’t been told. There’s very few records remaining of that time. At the time of making this film, the British press side of things. They’re represented as being these guerilla army that basically murder people in their beds. There’s that, but this other side.
So I knew going into Kenya, that, I was from outside. I had to use that to its advantage, to use it as a way of me being able to go in as a guest in their country. The first three or four months I was there I basically observed, and listened and let people tell their stories. I’d go speak to the elders in each village that I’d go it. And because of that approach, everywhere I went I was open-heartedly received. I wasn’t like the other movies that’d been there: “Tomb Raider,” “Out of Africa,” even “Constant Gardener,” had shipped everything in to that country. I was living with the people I was working with, living in the community where the school was. Even from the very first, I was with Kmani Maruge in his hospice. I would go in with Kikuyu, which were his tribe. So they built an openness and between me and the people I was representing and also the people I was working with.
I didn’t know what it was going to be like in Tudor England, or with the “Other Boleyn Girl,” or I didn’t know what it was going to be like when I did “Bleak House,” in Victorian England. With this I actually talked directly with the people that this story involves, to try and find the truth. And I think that’s what stood me in stead for it really.
W: You’re the second film-maker I’ve met recently who’s spoken of having that observational approach, attitude. Can you tell me how many of your peers use that approach?
Ang Lee, when he did sense and sensibility – I remember reading how he felt like an outsider coming into English, period, costume drama, would use that eye that he had, and that sensibility that he had to try to understand. He made a film from being like that, in that way. He made a film that was really true. And yet you know, he was from a different world, and a different country. And I remember that was something that was in my mind when I was going into this.
This began for American newsreaders in 2004, when the New York Times’ Marc Lacey wrote a Sunday profile piece. There he described what “changed when the Kenyan government declared a year ago that primary school education would be free through grade 8. Millions of new pupils showed up at neighborhood campuses, swelling enrollment from 5.9 million students to 7.3 million virtually overnight. Mr. Maruge, with his gray beard and weathered face, was among those in line.”
According to Robyn Dixon’s reporting for the Los Angeles Times, a year later, “As a young man, he was angered over his lack of education. He put those feelings away, but the thirst for education lay dormant most of his life. Now it has burst out, perhaps too late to keep up with the whirl of his belated ambitions: primary school, secondary school, university and a career in veterinary science.”
W: How did you design the proportion of Mau Mau flashback scenes to the proportion of the present-day, desire to learn kind of scenes?
To get that kind of balance is tricky in a film. I wanted to put in that backstory because it was so important to the man that he was when he went to the school to learn to read, he wanted to understand his past, to move on.
I worked with an editor called Carol Littleton; she’d done films like “ET” and “The Big Chill,” and she’s a brilliant editor. She always talks about the playability of a film; you go into a cinema, and the film has to play. That you’ve got to sweep your audience with you to the end of the film.
It was something, from the very beginning, that I’m very conscious of, when I’m working on the script: it was, yes, a simple story about a man going back to school and being educated. But also it had to propel forward with an energy. So that was something – just the pacing of the film, how we put the flashbacks. Each time there was a scene, it pushed on to the next. So there was a momentum to the film; it always had pace to it.
As Mr. Lacey reported in 2004, having access to lessons and a great teacher is splendid. But then to have that teacher plucked out from under you, like the first rug and hint at stability, was rough and short-sighted. Mr. Chadwick mentioned an anecdote that Jane Obinchu, Mr. Maruge’s sole headmaster in the film, told him about how her students reacted to her having been away from that school, and aborting her trouble-making.
“Jane Obinchu was the one who told me about the riot at the end of the movie; that was something that wasn’t in the film’s original script, that Ann had written. Jane said,’Oh did they tell you what had happened? Let me tell you about what happened when I was thrown out of the school.’ And then she told me about these amazing children. This stand, as their parents were welcoming the new headmaster for the school, the children closed the gates of the school, stood-up against them with rocks, not plastic rocks and bits like it is in my film. And they refused to open the gates to the school. There was this big, huge riot. The parents climbed over the gates of the school. The police had to be called to break it all up,” Mr. Chadwick said.
He continues, “Yes, it feels extraordinary that kids rise up, against their parents.” That climax wasn’t in the original script. He mentioned it because, that is something like from a Hollywood film, but it wasn’t. I know, when people see that in the film, they’ll think gosh that’s a figment of a writer’s imagination. But it’s absolutely true there.”
Click, if you’re hunger for the second half of this conversation with Justin.