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Published November 27th 2011
The First Grader is a powerful, sometimes brutal story of one man's determination to learn to read. It is set in Kenya in 2003.
When the Kenyan Government announces free primary education for all, children flock to the schools, jostling for places. The opening scenes show hundreds of children joyfully running across the African countryside, each carrying one precious piece of paper (their birth certificate) to demonstrate their eligibility. It is a moving scene, and a beautiful piece of cinematography.
Joining them is Kimani Maruge (played by Oliver Litondo), an 84 year old man - an ex freedom fighter from Kenya's violent fight for independence - who so desperately wants to learn to read that he's willing to sit alongside five-year-olds to do it.
The movie is about Maruge's personal journey - both in the present (as he tries to convince the authorities to allow him to attend school) - and in the past (as he fought to move Kenya out from under the shadow of British rule).
Based on a true story, the movie is an intense exploration of Kenya's history and culture, and the importance of education. The characters are incredibly compelling. Particularly the principal of the school - Jane Obinchu (played by Naomie Harris), Maruge himself, and the students of the school.
Many of the scenes were shot in a real Kenyan primary school. This creates a remarkable sense of authenticity. According to the press notes "The filming process itself was quite extraordinary, as the children in the film - who are in many ways the stars - had never even seen a film or television set before let alone been involving in the filming process. Their involvement in the shoot was a totally novel experience for them."