On his recent visit to Johannesburg, British director Justin Chadwick sat down with Linda Krige to talk about his new film, The First Grader, which released in South African cinemas in late September.
An article on the front page of a prominent US newspaper captured the attention of Ann Peacock, a South African screenwriter living in Hollywood. The article was about an 84-year-old Kenyan Mau Mau veteran called Maruge who enrolled at a rural primary school to learn to read, after the Kenyan government offered free education for all in 2003.
Maruge and Jane Obinchu, the teacher who fought for his education, were traced in Kenya and Peacock wrote a draft screenplay about their story which was sent to director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl).
“I read it and thought it was a different kind of film to come out of Africa. It’s not a particularly issue driven story,’ explains Chadwick. “While it’s uplifting and celebrates the human spirit, it also deals with a troubled past, which I thought was a good recipe for a movie.’
The film is a BBC Film and UK Film Council production in association with South African Videovision Entertainment.
Chadwick travelled to Kenya to do his own research and spent time with Maruge, then aged 89 and living in a hospice in Nairobi. Maruge told him how he fought for the liberation of Kenya from British colonial rule in the 1950s.
“I spent time researching the landscape and talking to people who had been part of the events. I also tried to uncover this past that the British had tried to destroy, from first-hand accounts of people who were there. It’s amazing to think that the British press portrayed the story of the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s in a completely one-sided way – 1.2 million Kikuyu were incarcerated by British forces in about eight concentration camps up and down the country, with very brutal regimes. Maruge himself was tortured every day. So although the central story of the film is uplifting, I felt I couldn’t shy away from telling this part of his story.’
Chadwick says after the initial research the film came together incredibly quickly, and was shot in about six weeks at the end of 2009 with well-known actress Naomie Harris (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) as teacher Jane Obinchu; Oliver Litondo (Ivory Hunters) as Maruge; and starring South Africans Tony Kgoroge (Hotel Rwanda, Invictus); Shoki Mokgapa (Retribution); and Israel Makoe (Tsotsi).
The film was due to be shot in South Africa. However, after visiting Kenya, Chadwick decided to film there instead, in a little village without water and electricity in the mountains of the Rift Valley.
“Maruge talked a lot about the land and how important it was to him as a Kikuyu male, so I wanted to make sure the landscape was going to be part of every frame, even the close-ups, but not in that awful, touristy way. I wanted it to feel unexpected and different, so this school and community felt right, because they were living in this beautiful, hostile environment that was surprising in that it was not an African landscape that I’ve seen in movies before,’ notes Chadwick.
They also decided to approach filming in Kenya in a different way. “When they make movies in Kenya they usually ship everything in – the food, the cast, the crew, the equipment. I used Kenyan crew and only shipped in a handful of people from outside Kenya, a few British and South Africans, the rest of the people were local.’
The film was shot by DOP Rob Hardy on a French camera, the Aaton Penelope. “We shot on 35mm, luscious widescreen so the film would look very, very beautiful. Because we were in such a remote place, the camera had to be incredibly robust. The Penelope can be quite intimate, because it is relatively small for a 35mm camera, but we also wanted the cinematography to feel epic and have beautiful depth of field. It handled the fluctuations in light very well, and we had very few problems with it,’ notes Chadwick.
Most of the soundscape of the film, including the singing, was also recorded on location by sound mixer Nico Louw, who Chadwick describes as one of the best in the world.
Because the village had no electricity they had to use a generator for power. However, according to Chadwick, this was not a problem.
“Everyone asks me what the challenges were like, but it really wasn’t a challenge. It’s amazing what you can do without as a filmmaker – it made us very resourceful and efficient,’ he explains.
An advantage to shooting in a remote village was that the entire community got involved in the production.
“A whole primary school was cast to play the children, and because they had never watched a movie or seen a TV, they saw us as the teachers. We have this medium where we are trying to catch very natural performances in this unnatural environment where you have camera and lights.
I wanted it to look very cinematic, but to also catch the raw performances of these amazing children. Having a whole school and community involved really helped that, I think this gave a vivid truth to the characters, because we weren’t trying to force the characters, they naturally emerged from the people we were working with.’
Chadwick went to the school on his own at first, talked to the children and got to know them, and then adapted the characters in the film to match the children.
“I realised during that process that I would have to create lessons for every single scene, so that the kids would be able to concentrate on something. So when Naomie came in to teach, she would actually be teaching a real lesson, and then doing the scene as part of that. By the time I shouted “cut’, they would be pulling me down, saying: “Teacher Justin, Teacher Justin, can you mark this?’ I would look over at Rob, the cameraman, and he would be marking, and Naomie would also be marking their work. To redo a scene, we would have to wipe everything from the blackboard and do another lesson, because they were so quick and so intelligent. They weren’t acting, they were reacting,’ he explains.
The film has played at film festivals around the world and has won audience awards at the 32nd Durban International Film Festival and the 2nd Doha Tribeca Film Festival, as well as the Best Feature Film Award at the Palm Beach International Film Festival in the US.
‘ SCREENAFRICA Print Magazine – October 2011 (view here)
By Linda Krige