I tend to cry during the festival. Movies that might normally get a sniffle or induce a slight redness of the eyes under normal circumstances at TIFF have me bawling uncontrollably. I don’t know if it the energy of the crowd, or just the festival-induced fatigue that lowers my emotional walls to the point where I’m getting weeping along with the battle-scarred directors in Every Little Step watching Jason Tam’s audition.
So I thought I was ready heading in to The First Grader – at least I thought I knew what to expect. The ten-second summary is “an 84 year old man enrolls in primary school after the Kenyan government announces there will be free education for all”. So I figured that I would see some adorable children, a lovable earnest teacher and some flashbacks to the war-torn past that would culminate in an uplifting story of how the human spirit can overcome adversity. We get all of that, but we also get so much more. I can barely write this as some of the images from the film continue to haunt me – as they should. In the film over and over again we hear the argument repeated that children are the future and precious resources should not be wasted on an old man’s education – but the story of the old man is a vital missing piece in the curriculum. In an effort to move past the tribalism and retribution they turned away from learning about the history that shaped what their nation had become.
Two performances stand out – Lwanda Jawar as the young Maruge has almost no dialogue but in the flashbacks he is so intense you don’t need to hear him speak at all. The love for his wife and family, his dedication to his oath and ultimately his pain during his captivity is clearly visible in a gaze that burns through the lens. Oliver Litondo as the older Maruge gives the best performance I have seen in years. I can’t compare it to anything I have seen-I can only say that it was amazing, and in the screening I saw more than half of the crowd got to it’s feet as Litondo came to the stage.
If you have a chance to see this movie, do it. Bring Kleenex, but do it.