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The First Grader

by Kavish Chetty / 21.09.2011

I’m possibly picking up a reputation as a Michiko Kakutani figure around here: you know – “that guy” – impossible to impress, serially venomous; I’ve even had the luxury of a few anti-Marxist slurs hurled at me on the comment thread. To all this I can only offer up my best Billy Crystal impersonation: “what do you want me to do?” So let’s defang, slip the spilled acerb back into its mantle-piece bottle and be pleasant. But only with a mild disclaimer: this film – The First Grader – is not my cup of tea, coffee or any other choice of warm beverage which completes this wearied metaphor. The only other way I could’ve been lured in to watch it is if Nu Metro started lining their headrests with cocaine and kitted out their drink-holders with complimentary single-malt whiskey. The precise crucifix for me was two-part. The first, that Whoopi Goldberg (whose cinematic apogee was voicing Shenzi in The Lion King) and my main man Barry Ronge gave it bold and emphatic kudos. The second is that the words “inspiring” and “inspirational” appeared on the poster. Few things on this planet can exile me faster than the expectation that I’m going to be “moved”, “touched”, “uplifted” (all very sexual-molestation style words, especially the erectile suggestion of the last) or have any kind of impromptu emotional surgery performed on my heart.

The First Grader

But this is really the magnetism of The First Grader for all those who have enjoyed it – amongst other accolades, it enjoyed an “Audience Award” at the latest DIFF. Its story is scary, tragic, depressing and then ultimately one of resilience. Kimani Maruge holds the Guinness Record as the oldest man to ever enroll for a basic education. When the Kenyan government announced “free education for all”, Maruge – a spritely 84 years old – took them at their word and sauntered over to his local rural primary school. His quest was to learn how to read. But for him reading is a great deal more invested than simply a past-time for his retirement. It represents a private existential struggle we learn, when we discover that Maruge has a complex and historied background as a Mau Mau; the Kenyan Kikuyu anti-colonial group which surged and contoured violently through the country in the 1950s. His reading quest is fuelled by an enigmatic, incomprehensible symbol – he has a letter in his possession, but he can’t tell who it’s from and what it says.

The film – directed by Briton Justin Chadwick, and written for the screen by South African Ann Peacock – is based on a true story. This accounts for a great deal of its inspirational capital, because the struggles here are the canonised struggles of the underdog narrative. Maruge is disliked by the local parents because he is seen as a waste of resources (why teach this old dude with “one foot in the grave”, when another young child could fill his boots, or lack thereof?). Maruge finds himself hassled and chastised by the school principal who has a prejudice for his tribe and wants him to get the fuck out. Maruge is looked after by a soft-faced feminine schoolteacher, one of the few to admire him against his thick and snarling opposing force. And Maruge – through every trial including ridicule and dictated expulsion – still manages to impress with his resilience, until he becomes something of a media phenomenon.

But his past still seethes within him, erupting often in brutal flashbacks. These were the shadowed moments at which this film became really powerful, even difficult to watch – Kikuyu tribesmen, suspected rebels, are wrenched from their huts, their wives are slaughtered in front of them, they are gruesomely, morbidly tortured. And at each of these historical episodes, the khaki-clad colonial bastard commands from the sidelines or administers the beating. Incredible imagery, really, because the violence is of Kenyan against Kenyan, but the cold superego which ghosts around all this violence is made of a sickening colonial spirit. Anyone who brushes aside the rupture of colonialism on this continent with the ‘condescension of posterity’ might need to be reminded with these kinds of visuals exactly what the terms are here. The principal of the school remarks “the past is always present”. This is the past which imbues Maruge’s letter with such value, and this is the past which he wants to transcend through his literacy. He says of himself, unable to read, he is “an old man, no better than a goat.”

The First Grader

So the moral of the story is “you’re never too old to learn”. I’m going to take the easy way out here and remark that this film might have been created as a reformation flick for Julius Malema. But more seriously, its intended audience is the vast excluded masses – uneducated, undereducated – who have been systematically taught to devalue themselves and also surrender to their crumbling vantage point, spectating on realities they can never touch. Look, to the surrendered and hopeless I would imagine this film answers its primary objective of reinvigorating the spirit of “can-do”. In fact, as the credits roll, a radio presenter in the film mentions something about “yes, we can!” – your Obama-lite soundbite that’s really the unspoken phrase filling out the theme of the film throughout. And it’s being used for social good: at the press preview Sanjeev Singh (acquisition/distribution director for Videovision) talks about the several bursaries and scholarships the film has ignited in the service of public education. It’s a slow redress, but Christ, at least they’re putting their money where their mouths are.

This film is not perfect and it’s certainly got a very precisely cut-out audience in mind. Even though I’ve never been to Kenya, I can tell by the faltering Kenyan-English accents put on here that some of these actors are foreigners and are probably butchering the accent. The dramas that go on are really quite cookie-cutter, to be honest (this film may be based on a true story, but every struggle, every theme, the climax, the domestic crescendos are all very familiar). But, maybe human life is just so goddamn archetypal at the end of the day that to expect the unexpected is not simply unrealistic but non-realistic. First Grader does what it does well. It services mainly, I would think, as a reminder of those perseverant goals: the power of education, the capacity for human resilience.

Films of this caste will, however, always be possessed of that nagging quality: there is some kind of tragedy rooted in real life here and it’s being mined for an artistic purpose. This isn’t a problem by pure virtue of the phenomenon. But I do wonder how my reaction would change if I was a Kenyan and had a closer access to these events – do these movies represent a hammed-up hagiography of their chief subject? How do the historical flashback episodes – only ever flitting on the screen in half-minute bursts – work to reduce the complexity of a bloodied colonial past? Or perhaps the main point of consideration should be what I consider the highest trouble of life under the sign of postmodernism: how is it possible to be sincere when the result will be an inevitable schmaltz in which our reactions of pride, proxy-courage and steamed-up eyelids are all still part of the rules of the game? That schmaltz is the thing I find unbearable in cinema, almost comically depressing, and this film has it in proverbial droves.

*The First Grader releases in South Africa on Friday 23 September 2011.

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