The First Grader by British Justin Chadwick was one of the most welcome films at the Haifa IFF. The theatre was full, the producer was on the stage, the applause was truly warm and long. It’s a very well done movie about an 84-year-old Kenyan who decides to go to school. The direction is strong, the rhythm is tight, the acting is impressive and emotional… Everything is O.K. except one thing.
In the Soviet Union our film teachers loved to teach us their favourite subject called Great October and world film history. According to this topic everything good in world film was inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution. German Expressionism, American social dramas of the thirties, Italian Neorealism and even the French New Wave… We laughed at all this bullshit, but now, watching a lot of modern western movies, I see nothing but the Great October influence.
The main story in The First Grader is not the only one. And not even the main theme. The leading character explains to everybody the reason why he wants to study at such an age. It was because of a tragedy in his life. British colonialists killed his wife and little child. So now he wanted to learn how to read and write to start a new life as a human being. Chadwick shows us the whites only in flashbacks portraying bloody Brits ordering their black slaves to kill the poor lady and child. ”The British did it to me! Look, what the British did to me!” – such are the words the first grader repeats many times and a story, which began as an interesting case of an ordinary man making an outstanding step, finally begins to look more and more like Soviet propaganda.
Sure, colonialism is not good. And according to modern politically correctness, the director feels the historical guilt of his nation. But watching First Grader, I was reminded of Richard Brooks’ film Something of Value (1957). It also deals with the Kenyan freedom struggle and the Mau-Mau movement. And in that old movie we see what those freedom fighters did with white women and kids. Contemporary first graders from Lenin’s class can tell, as their spiritual teachers did in Soviet times, that Brooks was an agent of imperialism. But in Something of Value the main white character keeps a hope for interracial peace even after his little brother and sister are killed. And in The First Grader, Chadwick tries to persuade us that blacks are better than whites.
There was another film in Haifa concerning this subject. Family Portrait in Black and White is a wonderful documentary about a Ukrainian mother raising more than 20 orphans – black and white through the social problems, racism and the greediness of people around her. This touching, energetic film was made by Julia Ivanova, a young Canadian filmmaker with Russian-Jewish roots. She has a genetic repulse of Leninism and that is why she made a film about black and whites as equals. Her movie gives us hope that not all modern western filmmakers will go to Lenin school to learn how the Great October influences the film.
Sergey Lavrentyev (Russia)