The First Grader was my first watch of this year's NZIFF and it was a great start. A big landscape, an engrossing story, a minor history lesson, great acting and cute kids - what's not to like? And in case you think that all sounds a bit saccharine, there are some hefty doses of brutality - this is Africa, after all, and you don't have to look far to uncover injustice and bloodshed.
It's the story (based on fact) of an 84 year old Kenyan, Maruge, who takes the Kenyan Government at its word when it promises free education for all. He's illiterate, and he wants to change that, so he fronts up at his local primary school and asks to be admitted. There's resistance to this idea from both the teachers and the parents of the current pupils parents but eventually Jane the headteacher relents and lets him in. It's not all plain sailing once he's in - Jane's boss has a particular objection to him being there and insists he should be at adult education classes in Nairobi and not taking up valuable space in an overcrowded rural school. Jane gets round this problem by appointing Maruge as a teacher aide.
Meanwhile, we get Maruge's (and Kenya's) past in flashback. He was part of the Maumau uprising in the 1950s and his wife and children were murdered. He was imprisoned and tortured by the British. There's particularly poignant scene in the classroom when Maruge has a meltdown at the pencil sharpener as he flashes back to being stabbed in the eardrum with a sharpened pencil by a British Officer.
In addition we get to find out the effect that going out on a limb has on Jane's career, her personal safety and her relationship with her husband.
I particularly enjoyed the pupils rioting when the education board tried to impose a new headteacher on them, having banished Jane to another school 300 kilometres away. I also enjoyed Maruge interacting with the children and him paying his minibus fare to Nairobi with a goat (who came along in the minibus since there was nowhere else to put him). The happy ending completes a very satisfying film.
Anne's rating 4/5