Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Review of the Film, The First Grader

Whenever I announce that our next movie has come from Netflix, invariably, Derrill’s response is, “Does it have subtitles?” Never mind that he’s enjoyed almost every subtitled move that has come in the little red mailer, I always have to be reminded that his benchmark of a good move is The Guns of Navarone.

When I announced the arrival of a foreign film entitled The First Grader, his response was tepid, and it wasn’t until the last of March Madness and there was nothing else on that sounded more interesting that we sat down to watch the DVD.

The First Grader isn't The Guns of Navarone, but it is a great little film with a few subtitles but mostly in English. Based on a true story, it’s about an eighty-four-year-old man living in rural Kenya who, when the edict comes down from the government that education is to be free to all, heads to the overcrowded village school to enroll. He wants to learn to read.

The old man’s name is Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge. Though he’s not welcome, and school officials do everything they can to dissuade him, he is tenacious. The film is about his struggle to stay in school so he can learn to read well enough to decipher a letter he received from the Kenyan president. He feels he must read it himself rather than have it read to him.

Through flashbacks, we find out that as a young Kikuyu tribesman he had a productive farm, a beautiful wife and two children. When he took an oath to protect the land and fight the British who were trying to take the land away from them, his wife and babies were killed in front of him because he wouldn’t break the oath, and he spent ten years in prison camps where he was tortured in efforts to get him to renounce.

Now as an old man, alone and scratching out a living in arid ground, broken and mostly deaf because of his years as a prisoner, his fighting spirit is evident in his quest for learning.

The film shows lots of things without preaching: that a young republic has lots of problems—corrupt local politicians, tribalism, superstition and resistance to change. It also shows that educating the young is important and that the children are a nation’s most valuable resource.

I was particularly interested in seeing what the British and Anglo world designated as the “Mau Mau Uprising” from the Kenyan point of view. I was aware of that uprising when it happened in mid-twentieth century, and I remember seeing British-made movies about it. Maruge, the first grader in this film, was part of that uprising. This film helped me understand that what he did was no more than what my revered great-great-great grandfather, the revolutionary soldier, did—he fought for freedom from British rule.

This is a wonderful film. There are some images— such as when Maruge’s wife and babies are killed—that would make it disturbing for children. And younger children would become bored because the film is more of a character study. But for teens and adults there is lots to recommend. It’s got heart and humor and lots of things to think about.

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Monique said...

This sounds like a great film. I love shows where ordinary people do extraordinary things. there's such a freedom in being able to read. Good for him. ;)

Liz Adair said...

Yes, Monique, and we who grew up learning to read take it so for granted.

Ronda Gibb Hinrichsen said...

Thanks for this. Makes me think I ought to look at more foreign films. :)

Liz Adair said...

Thanks for your comment, Ronda. Yes, there are lots of little gems out there that haven't gotten lots of buzz.

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