Man with yearning to learn

Nganga Maruge, an 84-year-old man from a small village, made international headlines a few years ago when he decided to take the Kenyan Government up on its offer to provide free primary education to everyone.

The former Mau Mau guerrilla fighter put on a school uniform and showed up at his local primary school to get an education he was denied as a youth. His determination impressed the school principal, who enrolled him in a class full of 6-year-olds. But his unorthodox choice raised the hackles of parents and Kenyan school officials, who did not want to waste scarce resources on educating an old man.

Maruge's struggle is now told in the film, The First Grader, thanks to the efforts of screenwriter Ann Peacock, Los Angeles-based producer Richard Harding and former head of BBC films David Thompson.

To direct, they brought in Justin Chadwick, who had worked with Thompson on the 2008 historical drama The Other Boleyn Girl.

Chadwick was instantly drawn to the material and its message of education.

"We had a chance to tell a story that was unusual for an African movie," Chadwick said. "What struck me was this back story about this British-Kenyan colonial past that had been destroyed."

Chadwick knew little about Britain's colonial history in Kenya and the brutal conflict with Mau Mau rebels in the 1950s. He travelled to Kenya to learn more and met Maruge in a hospice just before he died.

"He was a real fighter," Chadwick said. "You'd be sitting with him and he'd go, 'I'm not old!' He wanted to go for a walk."

Chadwick spent weeks touring Kenya scouting the locations, eventually settling on a primary school in the Rift Valley in a remote area of western Kenya.

He secured permission from village elders to film the school and its children, rather than relying on child actors brought in from elsewhere.

Lesson plans were designed and integrated into the film so that the children could act as if they were in class.

For the part of Maruge, Chadwick held auditions in Africa, England, France and America, but struggled to find the right actor.

Just two months before filming was set to begin, a crew member suggested Chadwick contact Oliver Litondo, who had small parts in movies and had worked as a TV news anchorman in the 1970s.

"He was a gentle, beautiful man who had this warmth and intelligence," Chadwick said.

Litondo said he was proud to tell his countryman's story.

"Here was this old man who rekindled that yearning to read and write," he said. "For me, it was very inspiring. Whatever we try in life, we cannot fail if we have that determination - and this man had that determination."

The First Grader screens at the Regent Theatre, Friday, August 5, at 1.30pm and Saturday, August 6, at 1.15pm as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.


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