South African film “The First Grader” scores at Telluride Film Festival

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John Horn from the Los Angeles Times reported that “The First Grader” scores at Telluride Film Festival.  While the rest of Hollywood turns to far-fetched fantasies of flying superheroes, impossible romances and talking toys, the filmmakers behind the standout movies at the Colorado festival are finding that some of the year’s most powerful stories can be found in real-life events.

While that’s obviously the case with Telluride’s documentaries, three of the most enthusiastically received dramatic features at the just-concluded festival - the world premieres “The King’s Speech,” “127 Hours” and “The First Grader” - are based on the extraordinary accomplishments of actual people.

When moviegoers see the words “Based on a true story” just as a film commences, they might grant a movie prospective empathy - the audience is more willing to welcome, both intellectually and emotionally, what it is about to see.
…“The First Grader,” from director Justin Chadwick, profiles an illiterate 84-year-old Kenyan villager who, after the government promised free education for all, hobbled into an elementary school and wouldn’t leave until he could learn to read.

 “The main thing was that it was uplifting,” Chadwick says of his interest in telling the story of “The First Grader’s” Nganga Maruge, a tale that came to filmmakers’ attention in a Los Angeles Times article. “You have to make something that is relevant these days, and it was a really good story.”

Chadwick shot his film, which stars the African actor Oliver Litondo as Maruge and Naomie Harris as his determined teacher, Jane Obinchu, in a remote Kenyan village with no electricity or running water and populated the cast with 200 local schoolchildren, most of whom had never seen a movie or TV show. While Chadwick and screenwriter Ann Peacock (“A Lesson Before Dying”) made several changes to the story (Obinchu in the movie is younger than in real life, there’s a radio announcer adding jokes and exposition), the movie endeavored to get geographic and historical details as accurate as possible.

The scars that Maruge bears on his back as a result of torture under Britain’s colonial rule are replicated in the film on Litondo’s body, and the songs the young students sing throughout the movie are their own creation. “The movie also celebrates the children, and the healing power of children, no matter what terrible things have happened in your life,” Chadwick says.