This true-life story of an 84 year-old Kenyan villager and freedom fighter who enrolls in school for the first time arrives in select theaters this Friday
Justin Chadwick directs Naomie Harris in National Geographic's true-life drama The First Grader, which recounts the journey of 84 year-old Maruge (Oliver Litondo), a Kenyan villager and Mau Mau war veteran who once fought for liberation, and now wants to take advantage of the education he was so long denied and fought so hard to achieve.
We recently caught up with both director Justin Chadwick and Naomie Harris, who plays Maruge's teacher in the movie, to chat about the challenges of bringing Maruge's life to the big screen. Here is our conversation.
You guys actually shot this on location, where Maruge sought his education...
Naomie Harris: Yes, we shot in Kenya. I can't remember how long the shoot was. It was maybe a six or seven week shoot. I'd never been to Kenya before. I had shot in Ghana and South Africa before. I had visited Nigeria. But I had ever been to Kenya before. It was really exciting for me.
Maruge's plight isn't too familiar here in the Sates. Being from Europe, had you known about this man's story before taking on this project?
Naomie Harris: I didn't know anything about the story. I was brought into the whole thing quite late in the day. It was only two weeks until we started shooting. Right before we were to fly out, I was asked to get involved in this. I didn't know anything about the Mau Mau or the history of Kenya. I came into this really quite ignorant in terms of the historical background of the country. I had to do quite a bit of research in terms of catching up on what had been going on there.
Did you also have to research how to go about acting as a teacher in Kenya, because it is slightly different than what we see in Europe or here in the states...
Naomie Harris: My step-dad is actually a teacher. He gave me a lot of lesson plans, and a lot of help. Justin was really adamant that I fly out much earlier, before we started filming, so that I would have several weeks with the children. I had been introduced as their teacher. So they knew me as Teacher Jane. I had the accent, and I came up with lesson plans for them. Though, by that stage, by the time we started shooting, I felt really comfortable with my role as a teacher. I felt I was really a teacher. Being a teacher has crossed my mind in the past. But I have been acting since I was nine years old. I never really wanted to do anything else. Being a teacher was kind of a fantasy. Maybe if I was born again, I would do my life over as a teacher. But my first love has always been acting.
You have been acting since you were nine. Now here you are acting with all of these children who are around that same age. How was it working with such young kids who'd never been on a movie set before?
Naomie Harris: Most of these kids had never seen a camera, or a TV. They had certainly never seen a film before. They weren't interested in the mechanics of filmmaking. They weren't interested in the camera at all, really. It meant nothing to them. Which was great. It made my job much easier. They were just interested in following the drama of what was happening in the classroom. Maruge being introduced, and so on. That was much more interesting to them than the technical stuff.
Did you have that one kid who was a handful above and beyond the rest of the children?
Naomie Harris: They were all incredibly well behaved. Which I know is hard to believe, compared to children in the states or children in England, where there is always one bully, or one naughty kid, or what have you. But the children over there are so well mannered. The challenge was to bring out there various personalities. To try and get them to open up. Because they were so respectful, especially to their teachers. For instance, it is disrespectful to look you in the eye. Getting eye contact from them took quite a while. And I couldn't get them to answer back. It was a challenge to get them to speak up in the classroom. That all took a lot of time. They had to really learn to trust me. That was quite challenging, and certainly, there was no misbehaving.
Is Maruge still alive?
Naomie Harris: He died just a few weeks before we started filming. Which was really sad. But, throughout his life, he was really quite poor. His dream was to have land. All of his life he wanted to have land. Before we started filming, they gave him some money to buy land. So he bought a plot of land, and that is where he was buried. It is a great end to his story. Unfortunately, he never got to see the movie, or see Oliver Litondo, who plays Maruge, or even see any of the filming, which is such a shame.
But Justin had met with Maruge before he had passed away. Maruge knew they were making a movie based on his life...
Naomie Harris: Yes. Absolutely. Those two had a long relationship. It was a year, or maybe longer than that, where they spoke frequently with Maruge, and they visited him as well. He was in a care home near the end, and Justin Chadwick really struck up a friendship with him.
Justin Chadwick: I was sent an early draft of the script by my producer, who I'd worked with at the BBC. I knew he had good taste. The two other producers had sent me this article from the Los Angeles Times, about this old man who had gone back to school. I thought, this could be an unusual African movie, and its an uplifting emotional film. It looks at important issues. And its something that audiences would be able to connect with. So I flew to Kenya and met Maruge at that point. He was 89 years old, and he was in a hospice. I started to talk to him. At the end of that conversation, I phoned up the BBC and said, "I don't want to go to South Africa and make it." Even though they had a more well perceived film industry. I wanted to make it in Kenya, because the more I talked to Maruge, and the more I heard about his story, I knew it would be a powerful mix for this film.
You have this 84 year old man coming to sit in your classroom. What was that interaction like between him, and you, and all of these kids who really don't know they are in a movie?
Naomie Harris: It was him interacting as an actor. That is what he brought, and what he took. I felt he did a lot of research on Maruge. He actually knew a lot about Maruge before we started filming, as he was Kenyan. But when he was playing Maruge, he was completely convincing, completely believable. He stayed in character, and it was fantastic working with him. More than anything, when you are working on film, its about people's essences. The way it shined through with Oliver Litondo was his heart. His compassion. His openness. He has a lot of childlike qualities as well. He is fun. All of those qualities were quite beautiful to work with and play with.
Justin, having met Maruge, and having struck up a relationship with him, were you able to help Oliver find this man in his performance?
Justin Chadwick: Sadly, Oliver Litondo didn't have a chance to meet Maruge, but because of those conversations that we'd had, and that time I'd spent with Maruge, reflected back on certain scenes, like the one where we see the love he had for his wife. His connections with the land. The orders he gave when he was in the Mau Mau, and this past he'd talked about, easing into the hands of the British when he was in a concentration camp. I started to put that into the script. I tried to capture the spirit of what Maruge had said. Some of the lines, where he talks about the power and the pen. That is a very simply thing to say, but it came from Maruge himself. I spent a lot of time talking to Oliver Litondo. Oliver is not really an actor. He is a man who is very open, and he had a lovely sensibility. An intelligence that he brought to the character, He definitely captured the spirit of Maruge. He really did. You could see it in his face. The complexities of emotions he is going through as a man. I was so blessed that I found Oliver Litondo. That was a long search. If you can imagine. Everyone said we'd never find our Maruge in Kenya. We were blessed that we did.
What did finding him in Kenya mean to the film?
Justin Chadwick: Because he was Kenyan, and because the person that inspired this role was Kenyan, and he was someone who could communicate directly with the children, in their own languages, and he understood the history behind this story. Oliver Litondo is a very intelligent man. He knew the history. He knew what had happened. He had a lot of the oral history passed down. The British have destroyed a lot of the records. Or, at least we thought they were all destroyed until three weeks ago, when it came out in the newspapers about this colonial past. But when we made the film, this history had been completely forgotten. Oliver knew this, because he was a Kenyan. I have always tried, in my work, to not have any acting going on. I can't stand to see acting. I want to see reacting. My job is to create a film, where we are capturing truth in performances. The reactions need to feel truthful. I cannot stand to see acting. In this particular film, I was working with a lot of non-actors. Of course, Naomie has a lot of experience. But I think, this raw talent that was there, all of these children, there was no acting going on there. Oliver was great, because he completely trusted me. He trusted that I would guide him through this. He brought that sense of history, and his own personal history as well. Sometimes, I would think, "Wow, he has caught this man. He has caught him!"
When you see the National Geographic logo come up before a movie, it almost feels like homework. But Justin really made a film that, while it is educational, it is immensely entertaining. Its not at all like swallowing medicine...
Naomie Harris: I would love to take credit for some of that. But really that isn't my department as an actor. All of that, and how the film turned out, is really down to Justin Chadwick. And the producers. They are the ones that set the tone for what they wanted. Me, as an actress, I can only work within the confides of the script. It was a real revelation and delight to me when I finally saw the film at Telluride, to see how much humor there was in it. And how moving it was as well. It wasn't dictatorial at all. Its not boringly, messagey, overly preachy. It isn't any of those things. It's a great, fun movie.
Justin Chadwick: From the moment I sat down to make the film with my producer, we had this saying, "We don't want it to be like spinach." We know its good for you, but you don't actually like it. We wanted something that would stand as a piece of entertainment in cinema, something that people could gather around and watch, and be emotionally moved by it. They could be uplifted, and it was powerful. Not like a big Hollywood blockbuster. But to be something equally important and cinematic in a way that was emotional and true. That was something I was aware of from the get go, that I thought was incredibly important. To be uplifting and entertaining is something I worked incredibly hard at. The things I saw in Kenya when I was there, the humor. Everywhere I went, there was all of this great humor, talking about these different tribes. That's why I wanted the DJ at the end. You would hear people talk about Barack Obama's visit to the country. Whether Obama had been on this mini-bus as a passenger, or whether Michelle Obama had been to a certain place. There was this whole humor and energy there, that I wanted to catch. That I thought could all be part of this film, which was an emotional rollercoaster, and a moving, uplifting experience for an audience. It doesn't feel like work. It feels like a great experience that audiences could share. When National Geographic saw it...They were the first to see it at the Telluride Film Festival, and there were other companies going for it...This was a new adventure for National Geographic. Getting involved in feature films. They spoke so intelligently and articulately about this movie we had made. It made all the sense, because that means everything to me. The fact that they so loved the film, and so connected with the film. I thought, yes, I would love them to do it. Like you, I'd thought of National Geographic in terms of their documentaries. I am honored to have them involved in it. Its an exciting moment for National Geographic, as they are branching out and growing into this different field. It is great to be a part of that.
On paper, the synopsis almost reads like the plot to Adam Sandler's Billy Madison...
Justin Chadwick: I have never seen it!
Naomie Harris: I haven't seen that. I have never heard anyone mention that movie. No.
Justin Chadwick: You couldn't write some of the scenes that are in this film. The backstory all came from Maruge. Even the stuff from the children. In the first draft, we hadn't written this riot, with the children standing up against their parents as the new head teacher comes in. When I met the woman that Naomie Harris plays, she said, "Oh, this is what happened! You should put this in." So I put that scene in. You couldn't have written that. A lot of the scenes in the movie came from true accounts. At the same time, there is a lot of improv to it, yet there is also a certain structure. I didn't want this to feel messy and handheld. But, equally, I wanted to capture true performances. The cameraman and I would work very hard at creating a cinema to it. We wanted that quality to it, where there was an intimacy with the cinematography. A lot of it was setting up the right atmosphere for these scenes. Everyone was clear about what we were doing. We would be working quickly and swiftly when we were with the children. But we were able to do some very elaborate things with those children, that enable us to capture that quality you see in the children's faces. They are reacting absolutely naturally.
How did you go about casting these children?
Justin Chadwick: There was a thought that I would have to cast all over Africa. The children were very different in the original script. I thought, I don't want to do that. I am sure you remember your First Grade class. I remember mine. There is this whole wealth of characters that you never forget. Those characters stay with you for life. I thought, I don't want to see any acting, so I don't need experienced actors. I want children who can communicate with a teacher. I didn't think there could be anything worse than dragging children from all over different parts of Africa. Putting them in this one school, it would be like a stage school. So I said, "I will choose one school and include everybody." I went into that school. I found a very remote school in Kenya, no running water, no electricity. The children hadn't seen movies, they hadn't seen TV. I went in and observed the children. Then I went in and started teaching them. I watch them to see how the interacted. They were shy, but they were all from the same school. I catered to the characters that I saw emerging. I wanted to really capture them, and I liked that they really knew each other. I was constantly watching them on the playground. The songs in the movie came from them, because that's what they did naturally on the playground. We ended up including everyone who wanted to be involved in this film. We ended up with two hundred and fifty kids every day, in this classroom, in this school. Not only them, but their parents and grandparents, their aunts and uncles. The entire community got involved. It was fantastic. That final scene with all of the parents outside the school? That is actually all of their parents and grandparents.
What about the last scene in the film. Where the DJ talks about how Maruge could become the President of the United States. There has been a lot of talk about Obama's birth certificate, and it seems like the majority of US citizens wouldn't care if he actually was born in Kenya. Do you think that part of the constitution will ever be overturned?
Naomie Harris: I would not really be able to answer that question. From my point of view, I would want a president who does the best possible job. I wouldn't care what country he was from, just as long as he was doing a great job for my country. They need to be committed and passionate about doing their job. That, for me, would be the overriding concern. Who really cares where someone is born? I don't think that matters at all.
Justin Chadwick: I put that into the film, because everywhere you would go, you would drive around Kenya in these little metallic buses. And Barack Obama and Michelle Obama had been to Kenya in 2003. When education was announced as free. Everywhere I went, even in 2009 and 2010, every person I bumped into, or every bus drive I would greet, would say, "Obama was on this bus! He sat there and his kids sat in the back!" It seemed to me that we could not leave out this reference in the film, particularly since there are these arguments on the radio all the time about where they both come from. I spoke to a DJ at the time, who ended up playing the DJ in the film. He said, "At the time, we were constantly talking about it." I asked him to come in for a half an hour, and write that material. We go him to be the voice throughout the film. It felt too good to miss this opportunity. We made this statement as a comment, not on now, but what was happening then. I love that side of the film. The humor. It feels very true to what I was experiencing while I was there, in Kenya.
What do you feel is the most important message delivered throughout the course of ths story being told?
Naomie Harris: For me, there were two main messages. The importance of education, and its great to see the passion that children bring to learning. That is something I took away from filming, personally. I felt so many times, because I see it, that going to school is kind of a choir. It was great to see those children over in Kenya, who felt it was a privilege to be getting an education. They love it, and they are so hungry for knowledge. That was great to see. The other beautiful message of the film, I think, is that it is possible to transform your life, and make it different at any age. I love the seriousness of this 80-year-old man who decided it was time in his life to get an education, to learn how to read and write. We live in such an ageist society. People think, "Oh, my life is over at 35!" Or what have you. Its great to see a story where someone is making such huge shifts and changes in life so late on.