This documentary illustrates the profound effect of a Swedish woman’s decision to finance a poor Kenyan boy’s education, deftly weaving together their fascinating life stories with the compelling story of three bright Kenyan students whose families cannot afford to pay for their secondary school education.
“How do you explain it? Some stranger steps into your life and totally changes it,” says Chris Mburu, a Kenyan human rights lawyer featured in A Small Act. The documentary weaves together Mburu’s personal story with that of Hilde Back, a Swedish woman who participated in a program to sponsor a Kenyan child’s education. Chris Mburu was that child.
A heavyset man with deep-set eyes, Mburu passionately describes his experience of being the top student in his district in Central Kenya, but not always being able to attend school because his family could not afford the fees. His life changed when Back, a preschool teacher, began financing his education through a Swedish foundation, donating roughly eleven Euros a month for several years. With her support, Mburu graduated from secondary school, eventually earning degrees from the University of Nairobi and Harvard Law School. He now works for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.
Unbeknownst to Mburu, his benefactor was a German Jewish refugee who entered Sweden in 1940 as a teenager. Her parents died in concentration camps. Hilde Back didn’t know that the student she once sponsored now worked as a human rights officer investigating genocide and crimes against humanity.
Inspired by Back’s act of kindness, Mburu decided to launch a charity to help bright young Kenyan students whose families were too poor to send them to secondary school. Things hadn’t changed very much since he was in primary school in the 1970s and he wanted to give deserving students the kind of opportunity he had once had. Though he had never met his benefactor, he named it the Hilde Back Education Fund in her honor.
A Small Act features the top three students in Mburu’s old school district as they compete for the fund’s scholarships. They desperately yearn to continue with their schooling; winning a scholarship is their only hope. “I can’t even explain how much knowledge I want,” says Ruth, who studies at night by lamplight.
“You feel awful knowing that your parents can’t pay for your education,” says Caroline, whose eyes fill with tears as she speaks, “but you hope that if you study hard, you’ll get money to continue your studies.” And Kimani, a young boy with old eyes says: “My family, my grandparents, they know education is the only thing that can change someone’s life.” To win a scholarship, the students need to score well on Kenya’s national exam.
The documentary gracefully ties all these stories together, fluidly cutting from Kenya to Sweden, in a remarkably compelling narrative that also includes Mburu finally meeting his benefactor and honoring her in a special celebration in Kenya. The film also captures incredible moments of tension as the young students anxiously wait to discover their examination scores that will determine their scholarship eligibility – and their futures. These intimate scenes are shot with such sensitivity and care that at times the students appear to have forgotten that the camera was even there.
Much of the film takes place in 2007, the year the presidential election of incumbent Mwai Kibaki was challenged by his opponent Raila Odinga and hundreds were killed in the ensuing violence. The election lurks in the background until the violence flares. Then it shows Mburu in Geneva, sitting stunned in front of the television and Back in Sweden, each watching the news about Kenya. Mburu soon returns to Kenya to meet with foundation committee members to decide which ten students will receive scholarships.
The carnage serves to underscore Mburu’s belief that an ignorant society becomes “the breeding ground for violence, disinformation, and intolerance.” And this is the message that is repeated in the film as a way to explain the sudden explosion of violence. The film steers away from any in-depth examination of the root causes of the bloodshed, choosing instead to keep its focus on the personal stories and the idea that education will prevent such things from happening. Education to prevent violence is a nice concept but conveniently ignores the fact that so-called educated people also participate in astonishingly aggressive acts against others.
Nevertheless director Jennifer Arnold has created an incredibly heartwarming film that illustrates how one small act of kindness can have an astonishingly profound effect.
Q&A with Jennifer Arnold
– What has been the impact of the film?
– The impact of the film has far exceeded our expectations. When we premiered at Sundance we were asking for any donations for the Hilde Back Education Fund, but audience members started walking up to us and handing us checks. Over the ten days of Sundance $90,000 dollars was donated to the fund. One viewer was part of a foundation that eventually donated a quarter million dollars to the fund in an effort to help them expand. Since the film’s premiere the fund has gone from a village-wide operation, to a Kenya-wide operation. The fund is still completely run by Kenyans.
– At the end of the film, you mention that the producers sponsored Ruth and Caroline. At what point during production did you and your producers decide to support them?
– While we were editing. We really wanted to sponsor the girls and it didn’t feel right to ask them to share their lives with us so intimately and then just leave them without a future. We also had to struggle with the ethics of being documentary filmmakers. We didn’t want to impact our storyline. But when we were editing and we knew that filming was indeed complete we decided to step in and put them through school.