In 2003, the government of Kenya announced that primary school education would be free for anyone interested in learning. They might have considered being a bit more precise in their wording though. When the gates opened and the children flooded in to take their seats, one man straggled behind them hoping for the same opportunity. His name was Kimani Maruge; he was 84 years old and he wanted to learn to read.
Maruge’s inspiring story has been adapted for film in Justin Chadwick’s THE FIRST GRADER. His triumph would never have been realized though if it weren’t for one strong teacher. Jane Obinchu defied her employers and stood up to the public outcry to ensure Maruge would realize his dreams. Obinchu is captured delicately on film by British actress, Naomie Harris.
“Obinchu really took a stand for this man’s right to education,” Harris tells me in between nibbles of her danish, when we meet in Toronto for yet another stop on her lengthy publicity tour. “It just made me question what I would be willing to put myself on the line for in that way and whether I would be brave enough to do it.”
Harris is extremely proud of her work in THE FIRST GRADER, as well she should be. The actress is perhaps best known for her work in Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER and her appearances in the second and third PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies. After such large productions, Harris was happy to return to a smaller scale shoot. “I had done some big budget movies where you feel like you’re just part of a machine. There were only nine of us though that flew out to Kenya. We were going to live amongst the community. That really excited me.”
The 36-day Kenya shoot may have been smaller but it was certainly not any simpler. Not only did Harris have to act like a teacher (for which she received coaching from her mother, her own personal and unofficial acting coach) but she actually had to be a teacher as well to a class of dozens of children. “It was tough with those kids. It took me a long time to get them to loosen up and that’s what we needed for the film. The film only survives if the children and their personalities shine through.” She confides as well that she thought it was going to be easy.
Of course there is one other light that shines through that Harris hasn’t mentioned yet – the man who plays Maruge, her co-star, Oliver Litondo. Up until now, Litondo has only played smaller parts and most of those on television. THE FIRST GRADER marks his first time in a leading role and his performance is remarkable. “He is brilliant. He is really open and really warm,” Harris gushes. She goes on to describe what it was like to work with him. “Whenever you’re working with an actor, it is all about them being generous and he has that quality.”
A smaller movie can also mean a more intimate experience with the audience. THE FIRST GRADER took home the runner-up slot for audience favourite at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (right behind another crowd pleaser, THE KING’S SPEECH, which you might have heard of) and touring with it has given Harris a new perspective on her profession. “Seeing people just sitting there and crying their eyes out and standing up to say how much the film really touched them – it’s just been really moving to me.” Harris, who is distractingly beautiful, was almost glowing at this point. “I had forgotten just how much a film like this can affect people.”
Kimani Maruge passed away in 2009 but thanks to Harris and THE FIRST GRADER, he will continue to inspire for years to come.