SIFF 2011: The First Grader ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2011)

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Even though I could glean from frame one that The First Grader (this year’s SIFF opening night selection) was one of those dramas expressly engineered to tug mercilessly at the strings of my big ol’ pinko-commie, anti-imperialist, bleeding softie lib’rul heart, I nonetheless loved every minute of it. Produced by the BBC and beautifully directed by Justin Chadwick, the film dramatizes the true story of an illiterate 84 year-old Kikuyu tribesman (Oliver Litando) who, fired up by a 2002 Kenyan law that guaranteed free education for all citizens, makes a beeline for his local one-room schoolhouse, eager to hit the books.

Bemusement from the school officials (who initially balk) turns to respect for the aging gentleman’s quiet determination to realize his life-long dream, especially from the school’s compassionate principal (Naomie Harris). As you may have already guessed, there is much more to the protagonist’s story; through flashbacks we learn that he was a freedom fighter against the ruling British during the nearly decade-long Mau-Mau uprising that took place in Kenya in the 1950s. The full sacrifice he made and personal tragedy he suffered comes slowly and deliberately into focus; resulting in a denouement that packs a powerfully emotional gut punch.

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