There are two stories tugging at your heartstrings in Jennifer Arnold's feel-good documentary A Small Act. The primary tale is of Kenya-born, Harvard-educated, human rights attorney Chris Mburu who reunites with Hilde Back, the Swedish pre-school teacher who anonymously paid for his education when he was a young man in Kenya. The timelier story, and the one that drives the film, looks at three talented young students in rural Kenya, Kimani, Ruth and Caroline, who are competing for a new scholarship sponsored by Mburu. Just as Mburu did many years ago, these young children need a scholarship to attend secondary school and continue their education. Similar to the kids in Davis Guggenheim's popular documentary Waiting for Superman, these children are also fighting for a chance at a quality education. With a modest theatrical run, including a Friday opening at New York's Quad Cinema, A Small Act will deliver just a fraction of the Waiting for Superman audience despite its common subject. Still, A Small Act will serve as a quality calling card for Arnold and act as a bold reminder that few causes are as important as children struggling for an education.
A Small Act premiered in the U.S. Documentary competition at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. With so many hard-hitting documentaries coming out about the Africa's grim political issues and horror stories, here, Arnold tells a good story about Africa, contributing to a more balanced portrayal of the continent.
Throughout the film, the charismatic Mburu speaks eloquently about education as a life and death issue and how ignorance is a breeding ground for violence and intolerance. Quality education, poverty and violence are topics that affect people throughout the United States as well as around the world. Kimani, Ruth and Caroline may be someone else's kids, and may live far away, but their stories and the importance of their struggle are nonetheless close to home.
Festival audiences know Arnold for her short film Maid of Honor and the Internet series The Mullet Chronicles and its subsequent feature documentary American Mullet but A Small Act is her best work.
Arnold learned of Mburu's story while attending the University of Nairobi for her junior year abroad. She makes Mburu the charismatic heart of her documentary and his reunion with the 80 year old Back, a Holocaust survivor who was also helped by an anonymous benefactor, is heartfelt.
Working with cinematographer Patti Lee and editors Carl Pfirman and Tyler Hubby during 2007, Arnold shows the daily life of the Kikuyu tribe with depth, sensitivity and beauty.
Arnold also understands that the best way for audiences to connect with the film's three young protagonists is to emphasize the challenges they face.
As Kimani, Ruth and Caroline await the test results that will determine their eligibility for Mburu's scholarship program, a presidential election sends the country into ethnic violence. Arnold captures the fear and anxiety around the least political turmoil and uses the strife to remind audiences of what Mburu said earlier: without quality education for all, Kenya's future leaders will likely repeat this cycle of violence.
Inspired by the Sundance audiences who asked to make donations directly after watching the movie, Arnold and Harambee Media, Considered Entertainment and Cherry Sky Films offer an Internet campaign in support of the film called 'What's Your Small Act?' to encourage people to do small acts of good in their own communities. Such campaigns are quickly becoming standard marketing procedure for socio-political docs however the outreach for A Small Act feels as sincere and heartfelt as the film itself. While the majority of its audience will discover the film on home video and cable TV broadcast, the What's You Small Act program will ensure that the story of Chris Mburu and Hilde Back will continue with future children in Kenya. That's a wonderful legacy that will more than make up for any modest box office tally.
Distributor: Film Sprout
Director: Jennifer Arnold
Producers: Considered Entertainment, Cherry Sky Films
Genre: Documentary; Kikuyu-, Swahili-, English- and Swedish-languages, subtitled
Release: October 29 NY