One thing I love about movies is the ability to travel to a far away land, to somewhere you want to visit, or to somewhere you’ve only dreamed of. I also love it when a movie inspires you, challenges you, and makes you think.
I saw one of the best movies, actually, the best movie I’ve seen this year at a special screening at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. The movie is a multi-fold journey: journey of man, journey for education, journey of a nation, and the journey it takes you on as it inspires you to follow your dreams.
The movie is called “The First Grader” and it’s based on a true story of a man wanting to read a letter. Sounds simple right? Well the man, Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge, is an 84 year old Kenyan who decided to take the Kenyan government up on its offer in 2002 of free education for all. In the movie we’re taken to a small village in the Kenyan bush where the past entwines itself in the story of this man simply wanting to learn to read so he can read a letter. But the letter isn’t just any letter. It’s a letter from the President of Kenya and the past is the horrors, imprisonment, and torture Maruge endured in detention camps because he fought for the Mau Mau rebellion against British occupation in the 1950s.
The trailer will draw you. Watch it and you’ll want to see more. “The First Grader” is out on DVD today.
A big part of my love of travel is quite simply the journey and the things you learn, the education along the way. I have not been to Africa….yet. And this movie makes me want to go all the more.
The journey of how I found out about this movie involves my young friend and actress Madison Moellers and her mom. They saw it a couple of months ago and immediately gushed about great it is and said I had to see it. They know I love movies, especially ones like this.
There’s more to this movie than just a movie, or the lessons and history it teaches. It gave birth to an organization, End Malaria Now, to help fight the number one killer of children in Africa under the age of 5. It’s not starvation or AIDs or another disease. It is the bite of a mosquito. Every 45 seconds a child in Africa dies from malaria. “The First Grader” producer Richard Harding saw that first hand and told me the story as we drove from Denver International Airport to Estes Park for the special screening of the movie and benefit event in mid-December. While filming, Richard spent some time at a malaria hospital. He enjoyed the kids so much that a few weeks later he went back to take them toys. When he went in, he noticed the kids were gone. Initially thinking the kids had gotten better and returned home, he was then told by the hospital staff the children had died. A bed net could have saved their lives. Most bites from malaria carrying mosquitoes happen at night. So Richard founded End Malaria Now. Just $10 covers a bed net for a family, logistics of getting it to a family in a rural area in Africa, and the training of how to properly use it.
But let me back up for a second. Madison and her mom saw “The First Grader” at a SAG screening in LA. During the question and answer session, Madison asked Richard and his producing partner Sam Feuer if the kids in the movie actually went to the school that is used in the movie. The answer is yes. It is a real school and none of the children are actors. Only one of the children in the movie had ever even seen a tv and that was on a trip to the big city of Nairobi and the child saw it through a window. The crew couldn’t just descend on this school and start shooting. Instead director Justin Chadwick orchestrated the introduction of crew little by little and each taking a role as teacher before filming started. Imagine being a child in Africa never having seen a TV, a camera, and let alone even have a remote idea as to what a movie is and then…the first movie you see, you are in it. Yes, the children in the movie have seen it (with a few scenes edited out to make it age appropriate).
Madison is a young philanthropist and immediately told her mom she had to do something to help those kids and other kids in Africa. In addition to her involvement with Stand Up 2 Cancer, she got involved with End Malaria putting together (with the help of her mom of course) a star-studded benefit in LA which she “Rule of Engagement” star Patrick Warburton to co-host with her and then a special screening of the movie in her hometown of Estes Park with producer Richard Harding attending. I should tell you these events came together in less than two months. The day before the event at The Stanley Hotel, Madison was honored in Atlanta at the Carter’s OshKosh B’Gosh “Charity of Spirit” luncheon. She was given a check. This eight year old chose to donate the bulk of it to End Malaria Now. Her donation is helping 200 families and saving hundreds of lives.
At the screening in Estes Park, I was immediately struck by the diversity in age of the audience and how intrigued the middle and high school kids were by the film. Filled with questions, the kids and rest of audience got a chance to meet a movie producer, ask questions about a film, and help others. Richard has a goal of raising 200,000 bed nets for families in Kenya and Sierra Leone, where he was born.
In one sentence Richard can sum up the lesson of “The First Grader.” He told me, “He [Maruge] wanted to inspire others to fulfill and live out their dream.” Sadly Maruge did not live to see the final movie, but he did get to address the United Nations on the need of better education for children in Africa.
So the journey of “The First Grader” continues long after the movie ends and trust me it will stick with you. A maker of movies, a maker of dreams and stories on film, needs your help to fulfill one of his dreams. In the motto of End Malaria Now: “Make a difference in a small way. Donate a net….Save a Life…and End Malaria Now.” I did and hope you will too.