Film: A Small Act
Release date: Out now
Director: Jennifer Arnold
UK Distributor: Dogwoof
Running time: 88 mins
Reviewer: Daryl Wing
As most of us struggle to get by while others that contribute very little and take advantage of everything, extract money from the government and our ever-tightening belts, and with so many twenty and thirty-something’s forced to live at home because they cannot afford to move out or find work, it’s somewhat reassuring to discover that some people still donate to charities and good causes, forgetting their plight to help others. When Hilde Back sponsored a young, rural Kenyan student, she thought nothing of it. She certainly never expected to hear from him many years later.
Chris Mburu, a Harvard graduate and a Human Rights Lawyer for the United Nations, decides to find the stranger that changed his life. Inspired by her generosity, he starts a scholarship program of his own and names it after his former benefactor.
The top students in Mukubu primary school are in the exact same situation as Chris once was. They are bright, but can’t afford to pay school fees. With the creation of Chris’ fund, these students have new hope.
But the program is small. How many will qualify for a scholarship?
You would be forgiven if you thought Simon Cowell was all over this. Director Jennifer Arnold must be a huge fan of talent shows if this documentary is anything to go by. Instead of a heartwarming story of hope, she’s managed to turn Chris Mburu’s generosity into some cruel, life-shattering nightmare. And it’s not just the children that are affected. In fact, the children, carrying such a heavy burden, take it on the chin for the most part, while the elders rue their misfortune for having created such thick kids by looking seriously cheesed off when results day arrives. It’s heartbreaking stuff.
We’ve all heard about the butterfly effect; where a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state. Here, a Swedish woman called Hilde Back - a retired schoolteacher and Holocaust survivor - participated in a charity that sponsored Kenyan schoolchildren. It was the sixties, but she managed to unselfishly donate the equivalent of around £20 a month, and it made a huge difference.
When that boy, Chris Mburu, tracks her down, we already know that he became a lawyer and UN diplomat and was inspired to set up a scholarship in Hilde's name. But we don’t know much about Hilde's own story because, for the most part, A Small Act is less concerned with this subject as it focuses on the pressures put upon the three children all praying for a slice of the pie. You can see why too. Although Hilde should be applauded for her selfless act, and watching footage of her meeting Chris for the first time is sugar sweet (a Harvard sweater scene will melt most hearts), the documentary only really fascinates when we are with the whippersnappers as they – reluctantly at times – study and study, then study some more in order to escape the poverty that surrounds them.
The three children – Kimani, Caroline and Wambui – are the top three in their school, but each knows that only one of them will be offered a scholarship. They all have tragic stories, but it’s the two girls’ hardships that really get under the skin. Either that or Kimani just doesn’t show his emotions quite as freely. That’s boys for you. Then again, he’s quite happy to admit his love for Caroline; a girl who mostly can’t study at night because they rarely have lamp oil. With education the only way to change someone’s life - as it did Chris’s - the tests, distributed under police guard, take place over three torturous days. Up to this point Arnold’s documentary is fairly interesting, but only now will you be transfixed.
Chris Mburu’s heart is clearly in the right place; he knows education is the way forward, but subjecting children and their families to such torture doesn’t always seem like the right way, especially as the results don’t arrive for between 4-6 weeks, even longer after a general election. In the meantime we’re forced to watch politics boil over into violence as those elections are disputed, with the loss of many lives. The trouble is, such troubles in Kenya, although horrific, have little effect on the children we’ve got to know over the opening hour (their village isn’t affected), and thus it feels more like filler until we finally return to our three hopefuls as they sit in front of a mobile phone, waiting for their results to be sent to them via text.
And boy do they wait. A supposed fifteen-minute delay quickly becomes one hour, then four, until Kimani is finally rewarded for his patience 31 hours later. And then his phone dies. Heartwarming then heartbreaking, what follows is one of the most joyless and depressing ten minutes of film in recent memory. While some of Mburu’s compatriots want a fifty-fifty gender divide on those who receive scholarships, regardless of results, he ultimately knows that his hopes for someone to follow in his footsteps have created far too much pressure on those involved, proven by the disappointingly low results. As decision day arrives, you’re already well aware that one, or two, or maybe even all three of the children this documentary has followed are in for a life-changing verdict, and not for the better.
A Small Act works best when we are forced to endure the heartbreak of its three children praying for an escape from poverty. Although Chris Mburu’s story is heartwarming and relevant, his meetings with his sponsor – although utterly unique - bog down a documentary that should’ve concentrated on Kenya’s current plight to have real impact.