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When is a person too old to learn? According to teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), it is when your ears are full of soil. Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo) might be 84-years-old but he is still above ground. In his mind, at least, that makes him eligible to take advantage of the Kenyan government’s 2003 initiative to offer free primary education to the post-colonial populace.
Although he is decades older than the other students in the rural school near his home, Maruge takes the government’s announcement seriously and begs to be admitted into the classroom. He even comes wearing a uniform and carrying the mandatory school supplies. While Maruge’s ambition is admirable, his desire to be in the classroom forces Jane to take sides against school administrators (Vusi Kunene) and her fellow teachers (Shoki Aokgapa, Alfred Munyua). The resulting threats and media attention strains relations with her husband Charles (Tony Kgoroge) as well. Fortunately Maruge proves to be a valuable role model to his young classmates who must learn under circumstances that most students in first-world countries can’t begin to comprehend.
Many of the villagers also argue he is taking precious resources away from the younger generation, the ones who are the future of the country. And some audience members may agree. Are educational opportunities wasted on a man of his age who has little hope of ever graduating?
Apparently Director Justin Chadwick didnt think so when he took a skeleton production crew with him to Kenya’s Rift Valley with the intention of telling Maruge’s story. Hiring many locals and filming inside a real school with real students, Chadwick produces an authentic and moving look at one man’s quest for education.
As a former fighter in the Mau-Mau Rebellion that pitted natives against the British Army, Maruge suffered brutal treatment at the hands of the invading military, including being forced to watch his wife (Emily Njoki) and children shot in front of him. Other violent beatings and torture methods are depicted in flashback scenes. Those portrayals, along with some brief male nudity in a prison scene will likely make this story too intense for preteens. Unfortunately the flashbacks are interjected in a way that makes it difficult at first to know what era the action is taking place in.
Having known an elderly woman who never learned to read, I understand Maruge’s frustration at being unable to make sense of the words on a page. As these students struggle to learn in an overcrowded classroom without any advantages other than a dedicated teacher, The First Grader is a powerful reminder that illiteracy is a prison itself. But one that can be unlocked if the right keys are available.
Theatrical Release Date: May 13, 2011 (Limited)
The First Grader is rated PG-13: for some disturbing violent content and brief nudity.
Director: Justin Chadwick
Cast: Oliver Litondo, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Sam Feuer
Studio: 2011 National Geographic Entertainment
Website: Official site for The First Grader.