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The First Grader, Now On DVD, Celebrates The Power Of Education, Foundation Helps Awards Bid

     This week, resident and producer Richard Harding saw his film The First Grader released on DVD.
     The fact-based drama tells the story of octogenarian Kimani Ng’ange’a Maruge, who decides to get the education he was denied, by enrolling in a public elementary school after the Kenyan government decided to provide education for all.
     Olivier Litondo, who plays Maruge was recently named “Best Actor” by the Black Film Critics Circle.
     The movie deftly illustrates the obstacles Maruge faced—from the country’s education department, teachers at the school and parents afraid he was taking precious resources better spent on a child—to achieve his goal.
     Naomie Harris (set to be the next Bond girl and best known as Tia Dalma in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) plays  Jane Obinchu, the school principal who champions Maruge’s cause.
     Her enthusiastic performance equally matches Litondo’s quiet dignity, strength and unflinching determination
     Screenwriter Ann Peacock’s script (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe) keeps the film shifting, through crosscuts and flashbacks, between Maruge’s memories of his life as a young father and warrior in the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonialism and his quest to read.
     “This is a gem of a film with the universal message about the power and importance of education,” Harding said. “The First Grader has truly inspired and touched all those who have seen it.”
     Illustrating that power, the film shows an empowered 84-year-old Maruge teaching his fellow students—endearingly played by children from the Rift Valley School in Kenya were the film was shot.
     He  inspires them to revere their country’s history (Kenya became an independent nation in the 1963) and is even responsible for a small revolution when the school’s beloved teacher and principal is transferred  from the school by an education department bureaucrat.
     A heartbreaking look at the history of Kenya under British oppression, the film is a poignant lesson, and at the end of the film, viewers realize why reading the letter that inspired Maruge’s journey is so important to him.
     Much like it’s main character, the film has taken a dramatic journey. Premiered at last year’s Telluride Film Festival, The First Grader went on to finish second to The King’s Speech in voting for the audience award at the Toronto International Festival, and was honored with similar recognition at smaller festivals.
     But the film was not a success at the box office, grossing just over $300,000 and Harding and his producing partner Sam Feuer blamed distributor National Geographic Entertainment for “poor marketing and advertising,” Harding says. It was largely overlooked by the mainstream audience.
     “When National Geographic Films refused to finance our awards campaign, we thought all hope was lost,” Harding said.
      It was recently announced that Daniel Battsek will depart as president of National Geographic Films at the end of January. Battsek reported to David Beal who also will leave as president of National Geographic Entertainment at the end of the year. The Beverly Hills office of National Geographic Films shuttered earlier this month.
     But two young Burbank actresses. Olivia (8)  and Allie (11) Shea were inspired after seeing  the film and in turn inspire their dad (Darin) and his Shea Family Foundation (SFF) to get behind The First Grader and finance its Oscar run.
      The SFF sponsorship has given the campaign legs allowing the producers to mail out 15,000 DVD screeners to voting members of the Academy, PGA, NAACP, SAG and other guilds as well as more than 1,000 members of various critic groups.
      At this point The First Grader has made the Oscar short list for Best Song (Keep On Walking) & Score, been awarded an International Press Academy Satellite Award, the Sound Track Award at the International Sound Track Awards and garnered four Black Reel Award nominations
     —Steve Simmons

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