Exclusive TMP Interviews: Director Justin Chadwick on ‘The First Grader’

The First Grader (2010) – Oliver Litondo as Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge

When I heard that I was going to be speaking with Justin Chadwick about his movie The First Grader, I was elated. I knew that a movie like this needed to be handled with a sensitivity and an honesty devoid of a loud and ostentatious manner. After seeing the film, I knew that Chadwick had told a story of not only an incredibly determined and honorable man named Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge, but also of an unknown part of African history. It is also a film that speaks volumes about what type of man Justin Chadwick is. We spoke for a time, and throughout the interview, Justin was open and candid, accessible and extremely forthcoming. The First Grader is undeniably moving, and Chadwick was willing to share with us why he was inspired to make this film, how Africa was an amazing experience, and what his favorite thing about the real Maruge was.


Director Justin Chadwick behind the scenes of The First Grader.


“We put a lot of energy and passion into this film and we are really, really so pleased that audiences are responding to it. It’s just so moving to see the response. Audiences love to laugh and cry and this film really seems to be catching their hearts.” ~ Justin Chadwick


TMP: This story seems like such a quiet, almost secret part of African history not readily available in history books. How did this story come to your attention?

Justin Chadwick: It was an article that was written about an old man that at 84 had gone to school and had become a poster boy for education in Kenya and then Africa. He went to America and spoke at the UN and he was the oldest first grader, so he’s in the Guinness World Book of Records. So he was in the LA Times, the New York Times and that’s how the story originally surfaced outside Africa. I was sent a draft of the script — it was the basic storyline of Maruge — by my producer David Thompson, who I had worked with on The Other Boleyn Girl, who sent it to me. And there was something about that material, about that fact that I didn’t quite know this history. I knew about England’s colonial past, a complicated past, but I didn’t know quite the extent it had gone.

Justin expanded on this question and gave me a background on why it was important to him to make this film: I didn’t know about this history, you don’t get taught this history in school. And when you do research it, what remains from that is this one sided version that the Mau Mau were a guerilla army that terrorized everybody and were murdering people in their beds. The fact is that there were atrocities on both sides but it seemed to be very one sided. So we went down to Kenya and started to get these first hand accounts from the people who had been in the concentration camps and been through those troubles and hearing their stories that this unknown past started to emerge. Once their independence came, the British had destroyed all the records.

Life moves on, you forget the past, like so many countries do after coming out of such terrible conflict like this. Even the Kenyan crew — it was a predominantly Kenyan crew — didn’t know this past either. So they went back to their parents and their grandparents asking questions. And the stories in the film and some of the music came back from grandparents who’d been in the camps at the time when Maruge had been in the camps. That music had never been written down it just came straight from that direct source, so it was just a voyage of learning for all of us all the time.

As soon as the Kenyans saw that we were approaching it in this way — and I felt a responsibility coming from Manchester, England to be very aware and to listen to everybody around me, to listen to their stories and to observe and soak up as much information and first hand accounts as I could because I wanted it to feel as honest and truthful as it could. And I think that that approach, going into these communities and talking to the elders and involving the communities in the film, I think that approach put the film in good stead for truthful performances and honesty in the interpretation of the story. It was very beautiful and the film feels very real.


The First Grader (2010) – Naomie Harris as Jane Obinchu


TMP: It did feel like sitting at your grandparent’s knee and listening to their story. Like I was learning an oral history passed down to the next generation by the elders.

Justin Chadwick: And that is exactly what it felt like for me. I sat with Maruge for the days and the weeks that I was with him, and he was 89, and he was telling me these stories and he’s telling me these accounts about his wife, about his children, and his connection with the land, and this whole past that he’d had in the 50’s, and his love for the land and his wife and his family; I couldn’t shy away from it. That’s why I did it from that point of view. And though those things were emotionally difficult things to shoot, they are absolutely how he told me them, and they are visceral and real and that was my intention. I tried to be as even handed with it, to be as honest as I could be with the material because I knew we had ingredients to really take an audience on an emotional journey and an understanding.

TMP: It was so painfully apparent that Maruge suffered from PTSD. I understand their importance to the film, yet how difficult was it for you to film these sequences from his past? How did you coax these performances from the actors? It must have been difficult to go there.

Justin Chadwick: It really was. The children and the school scenes, completely joyful experience. You can see the joy pouring out of the children. That was a completely different experience to the back story that threads its way through the film as Maruge in this school starts to churn up all these feelings about his past and trying to make sense of his past as an old man. They were challenging scenes to do because I sat right with him as he held my hand telling me these stories and three months later I’m actually shooting these scenes in these villages that had been there in the 50’s. So the old faces you see, they’d been there, they’d been through those times, they’d had those things happen to them. You can see it in their faces, in the reactions that they gave.

And when I was shooting the scene with Maruge and his wife, I could hear weeping in the huts around me. And the villages and the community, they wanted this story to be told, and they wanted it to be done like this, and they wanted it to be as real as possible. Incredibly moving. I think that the way that I approached it, I was always very, very clear with my intentions.

I would talk to everybody that I came across. And the way that I went into these communities with the actual people from that country, I think that that created a sense of trust, and because of that, people went so much further. Some of those performances are absolutely extraordinary. The camera is sometimes 2 or 3 inches from the faces of the subject and they are incredibly real performances. But you can see the truth — even the men as they are sitting all rounded up in the camps looking straight into the camera — it seems powerfully real because those men knew exactly what they were doing. They knew what they were portraying because of how we’d made the film, they’d talked to their parents, they’d talked to their grandparents, they had a point of reference.


The First Grader (2010) – Determined to get the education denied him when he was younger, 84 year old Maruge will face opposition from both parents and government.

TMP: There were a lot of quiet yet impactful moments with Maruge where the camera was very close to his face. There was a wealth of story in these shots. Are these stories that are about catching performances, these real moments, your favorite kinds of stories to film?

Justin Chadwick: That is the joy of cinema and the moving image of the character on the big screen. I love the power of the image. You can feel the emotion. I started in the theater and the whole kind of way that I like to work is about catching performances. And in some respects, filmmaking is the most intimate of mediums, but the paraphernalia of filmmaking can sometimes get in the way, you know, because a film can be about hitting the marks and the lighting. Those things are important, the visuals are very important, and the style and the look of the film are very important, but what is absolutely essential to all of my work is that I try to capture performances, truthful performances because I don’t want to see any acting.

So the starting point always in my work is to be able to create an environment for the actors in front of the camera to feel comfortable and supported and that they have an environment around them that enables them to go there, to do what they have to do which is sometimes very, very difficult. So I spend as much time casting my crew as I do casting because I think it is very important that you have this environment to be able to catch a performance. And it’s all about what’s going on in the eyes. And I think if you manage to capture that then, you know. And it’s my job to be able to do that. It’s what I’ve always striven to do.


The First Grader (2010) – Free education for all.

TMP: You had a chance to meet Maruge. What was your favorite thing about him?

Justin Chadwick: I think my favorite thing about him was that he had this incredible energy about him that was just, I mean, he was very, very ill but he just had this passion, this energy, this twinkle in his eye. And he just refused to be old, refused to be sitting with the other old people in the hospice. He had this complete determination, he was very physically weak but you could just feel this determination. One day we were chatting and he says, “Come on, let’s just walk over there.” I go, “Are you sure, you sure?” And he was holding onto me and he was very, very frail, but I could just feel this energy inside. We get to the gates of the hospice and we’re in the middle of Nairobi and he spoke to the guy on the gate and he managed to get this guy to open the gate.

Justin is laughing the whole time he’s telling me this fond memory: And he just bombed it straight out the gate holding onto me. And I was thinking, “Oh my God, oh my God, what’s going to happen?” And there are goats on the street, and cars and stuff and he was really rushing down the street as fast as he could and Maruge’s going, “Come on, come on!” And I could see the nuns coming out of the hospice with his wheelchair and he was going so fast and they managed to catch up with him and he’s batting at them with his stick saying, “I’m not sitting in that chair! I’m not sitting in there! No way! I’ve come for a walk with my friend!”

He just had this energy that was fantastic. And the way that he spoke about education, the lines in the film ‘the power’s in the pen’ those lines came from Maruge. As he was telling me those stories I had tears running down my face. He was a man that just absolutely never gave up and knew the value of education. He wanted this film to happen so much. He was going to have a small part in the film, he was very excited about that, and sadly he died 3 weeks before we started shooting. I was so upset that he never got to see the film, but he did know in those final meetings that I was absolutely going to make the film and that meant a great deal to him.


The First Grader (2010) – It’s never too late to dream.

TMP: I think you managed to capture his essence, his spirit. I think that he definitely would have been thrilled.

Justin Chadwick: Oh yeah, and though you’d never met him all of us definitely got that energy and his spirit is definitely in the film. And the things he talked about, the land, those things are definitely woven within the film. He’s definitely within the film and if he inspires one other person to continue their education or to never stop learning, I think that would be really humbling, that. You know those scenes that were in the film, you couldn’t write those, in the classroom, all of those are from true accounts. We didn’t fictionalize anything that happened to him or to Jane Obinchu. 

TMP: They were both very brave. At its heart, this film is about courage and determination in both the past and the present. They both had to have great courage against adversity in different forms, and that is very inspiring. So how did this film inspire you?

Justin Chadwick: It inspired me from the moment I started on it. I was inspired by the children. I was just inspired by being in Africa and stripping back the paraphernalia of filmmaking. I feel very fortunate and I love my job, I love telling stories and this was a story just really, really rich and inspired every single day. I’d go into work with these amazing children, in the end I had 250 children involved in these scenes, and these whole communities were involved in these scenes who had never acted. And the children had very, very little in terms of material possessions.

The way they lived was very, very basic. They’d wake up, work the land, walk miles to school, come and work and they just had this thirst for knowledge, and that was just completely humbling. They never sat around bored. They’d be playing in the playground those games that you see in the film, the songs, that would be them naturally what they would do during playtime. They seized life, they really seized every moment of life, and they were so warm hearted and open hearted everywhere we went. You’d think they’d be resistant to me and making a film about subject matter like this, but it was the complete opposite. I was welcomed everywhere.

And the children were everyday inspired. You think over here, we have an education system in place. In Kenya, those children know that it’s a possibility that they may lose this education at any moment. That they may lose the chance of free education, so they seize it. And with very little — no computers, hardly any pens or pencils or paper even — just the very, very basic. The way that they mentally retained information off the blackboard, the way that they wanted to learn, and the way that they respected community and elders, that was inspiring. Everyday was inspiring. I absolutely loved every second of making this film. It was a wonderful, fulfilling experience. And a humbling experience as well for those reasons.


“In Kenya, those children know that it’s a possibility that they may lose this education at any moment. That they may lose the chance of free education, so they seize it.” ~ Justin Chadwick


TMP: Has it changed how you view the world now?

Justin Chadwick: I think it gave me great hope to see people who are living with very basic things in a very basic way that understand that it’s important to live now in the moment as well as looking to the future. It’s reconfirmed my sense of humanity.

We’ve got a lot to learn from Africa as well, and to celebrate about Africa. So often in realism and in press the way that their history and their current situation is shared we see so much negative, and there’s so much to celebrate there, so many wonderful stories within Africa that are uplifting, at times challenging of course, but uplifting, and this was an unusual thing, to have this story celebrated at last.

And I think it has changed me in a way. I mean I appreciate everything. I appreciate the fact that we’re now about to open the film and somehow this little movie about Maruge is going up against movies like Pirates of the Caribbean 4, and this little film is going to have some sort of life, a hope. Because there has to be a place for films like this in cinema to take hold and to enjoy, and I think that audiences that have a response to the film will tell their friends and family, “Go and see this movie.” And I think that word of mouth is important.


Director Justin Chadwick behind the scenes of The First Grader.


“…Because there has to be a place for films like this in cinema to take hold and to enjoy, and I think that audiences that have a response to the film will tell their friends and family, ‘Go and see this movie.’ And I think that word of mouth is important.” ~ Justin Chadwick


TMP: In the movie Maruge says, “Reading is the end of poverty.” Do you think this is true? Can a free education for all create a poverty free world?

Justin Chadwick: I think reading, understanding and learning is a great key. I think it could help fix problems if people had a greater understanding and knowledge. I think it could help. I wouldn’t be here without a teacher. And I’m sure you wouldn’t be where you are now if it wasn’t for one teacher that inspired you, so I think that the value of education, the importance of education, and also the importance of teachers is very important for the future and understanding that one should never get to the stage where you’re not learning.

It’s a simple statement that Maruge made, and it may not be able to fix everything, but I think that education is definitely one of those things that we need to look at, at how we are educating our children and preparing them for the future, and are we correctly preparing those children for the future. And most importantly, we need good teachers, inspiring teachers, and teachers that can prepare us all, but particularly the next generation for the future and give them an understanding of what challenges we will face. And I think education should be accessible for everybody.


“…I think education should be accessible for everybody.” ~ Justin Chadwick


The First Grader is a film being released by National Geographic Entertainment and has won lauded attention at the Telluride Film Festival, TIFF, and went on to win the coveted Audience Award at both the Doha and Pan African Film Festivals. The First Grader opens May 13th in New York and Los Angeles with a wider release across the country on May 20th. If you want to see a meaningful and uplifting film this year, this is the film to see. The First Grader is a remarkable film. Check your local listings for show times in your city and do not miss out on this film that will move you to fulfill your dreams no matter your age.

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