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INTERVIEW: Speaks with Nat’l Geographic Films Director Justin Chadwick About Recent Piece

Let me start out by saying that I understand there are so many movies that are, "based on a true   story," or "inspired by actual events," or just a recreation of a story told a hundred times and deemed entertaining enough to captivate an audience for 90 minutes. They all generally have a common thread, and that is, at some point, your heartstrings are tugged, and you walk away awe struck or momentarily inspired. The First Grader isn't that film.

National Geographic Films chose Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl, 2008) to direct this film, and his first order of business was to comprise a mostly Kenyan cast and crew. Despite some pressure to shoot in South Africa where the film industry is considered to be more established, Chadwick insisted that it be shot in the country where the story took place.

I was fortunate enough to catch Chadwick on his stop in Dallas and get a more intimate look into the creation of The First Grader:

Rania Batrice: This film was moving, inspiring, and had all the elements of a great, "call to action" film, but how accurate was it?

Justin Chadwick: We were very aware that we were dealing with a very important subject matter in education, but we also knew that we were dealing with the virtually untold history of the British-Kenyan colonial past. One of our producers jokingly said that a lot of African films are like know it's good for you, but you don't really want to eat it. So it was very important to us that this film was engaging but also very accurate.

RB: Tell me about your educational background...were you one of those students that was excited to be in class, or were you wishing you were anywhere else but the classroom?

JC: I wasn't particularly brilliant at school and actually didn't want to have anything to do with the industry I've ended up in, but I had a teacher who picked up on my creativity. She encouraged me to join the theater, and all of a sudden I found my passion. And as much as this film is about an amazing man and his determination to learn, it's also about that one teacher that changes our lives. One single teacher can change your entire future. I believe teachers are the key members of our society, and they are undervalued and under appreciated."

RB: Maruge and Jane's characters both are very defined. How much time did you spend with them while developing the script?

JC: I spent a lot of time with Maruge before he passed away. During that time, he shared so many stories with me about his life. Those are the back stories that I wrote into the script. The same was true of Jane. The battles that she had with the community in the film were the actual battles she had when this happened in 2003.

My a former educator and someone who is frustrated with the lack of importance placed on education, this film speaks directly to that message, and to me, the undeniable fact that many parents, students, and legislators in the U.S. take primary and secondary education for granted. We all seem to forget that those little 6 year old students are the ones who will grow up to develop the latest sustainable energy technology or find the cure for cancer or create the next artistic masterpiece that will inspire entire movements.

The First Grader is in fact, an inspiring story about an 84 year old man who was determined to learn to read. That story itself is enough to write your Congressman and encourage parents to teach their children to take full advantage of their free education. But the rest of the story, the back story about Jane's passion for teaching, about the passion for learning each child had, the story of survival and perseverance beyond reason--that is the what makes this film more than a "tug at your heartstrings...feel good for a moment" kind of film.

The First Grader's limited release schedule began on Friday, May 13th in New York and LA. The First Grader opens for an entire run at the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas on May 20th and expands to the Angelika Film Center in Plano for a full run beginning May 27th...stay tuned for more details on this must-see feature.