Review - One to the power of 84

1st July 2011 at 01:00

The First Grader is on general release

"Why does someone as old as you want to go to school?" the headteacher asks the old man in regulation uniform, HB pencil clutched in his hands, who stands at the school gate.

"I want to learn to read," the man replies simply.

The First Grader opens with the Kenyan government's announcement that primary education is available, free of charge, to everyone who wants it.

At Kimani Ng'ang'a Maruge's local primary school, pupils sit five to a desk; others squat on the dirt floor.

So when 84-year-old Maruge (Oliver Litondo) asks to enrol, teachers are less than welcoming. "Go home and rest in peace," one tells him. "Rest in peace?" Maruge replies. "I'm not dead."

Headteacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) eventually takes pity on the determined would-be pupil, and invites him in. The smile on Maruge's face is heartbreaking; it is matched only by the beam of satisfaction when he successfully writes his first "a".

The film is based on a true story: the real Maruge, who died in 2009, was a former Mau Mau rebel, who held the world record as the oldest person to start primary school.

The point the film makes - with little subtlety - is that education equals freedom. Once an independence fighter, Maruge is now championing the freedom that comes with literacy. Thus he leads pupils in a chant of "uhuru, uhuru": "freedom, freedom".

And his experiences at school are intercut with sun-blanched memories of his time with the Mau Mau. Scenes of torture at the hands of British colonial authorities are brief and - precisely because of this - overwhelmingly powerful. They haunt the viewer, just as they haunt Maruge. It will be a rare cinema-goer who emerges from The First Grader without some sense of collective guilt.

But the former warrior meets with little understanding among the younger generation. While journalists fawn over him, and the government puts his face on pro-education billboards, local villagers assume that it is all an elaborate money-making scheme.

At best, his education is seen as risible: some of the film's sparkiest dialogue comes from Maruge's drink-soaked contemporaries.

"This celebrity culture has gone too far," one says, seeing Maruge's face on a billboard.

The film is beautifully shot and acted: Naomie Harris, in particular, delivers an admirably nuanced performance. And, for the developed world, the liberating power of education is too often forgotten.

It is hard not to see the film's denouement, in which Maruge confronts education ministers, as a message for a broader audience. Barechested in a wood-panelled boardroom, he pleads with passion: "We. Need. Good. Teachers." Then he turns his whip-scarred back on the ministers, and leaves.

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