Designed for maximum inspiration and reassurance in tense and difficult times, Jennifer Arnold’s gentle “A Small Act” is a modest look at one act of goodness yielding another, spanning Sweden to Kenya. Hardly world-beating as docu filmmaking, this bound-for-HBO work is most effective as a tool to drive liberal-minded viewers to crack open their checkbooks to help the poor. Festivals with a mind to program kind-hearted true stories about the brighter side of Africa will find plenty to consider here.
Raised three decades ago in a mud hut in central Kenya, Chris Mburu grew up a bright student who was able to attend secondary school (paid entirely out of pocket by families) with the aid of the Swedish Sponsorship Scheme. Schoolteacher Hilde Back had donated a mere $15 a month to the sponsorship, with Mburu’s name attached as the recipient. As is repeated several times in the film, neither Mburu nor Back ever knew each other during the process.
Mburu attended law school and Harvard on a Fulbright scholarship, and now works for the U.N.s anti-discrimination unit in Geneva, with a concentration on genocide. As a tribute to Back, he created a Kenya-based foundation in her name to help top students in the national aptitude test for secondary school. Education in Kenya, Mburu says, is life and death, since youth who fail to attend secondary school are almost certainly doomed to poverty.
“A Small Act” is frontloaded with considerable introductory and background material, but finds a focus with sharp students Kimani, Ruth and Caroline as they study for the aptitude test in 2007. The three share much in common: All are members of the Kikiyu tribe and come from poor families — in Caroline’s case, desperately so. Arnold, with editors Carl Pfirman and Tyler Hubby, dutifully cuts back and forth between the kids’ efforts and the overdue meeting of Mburu and Back, who visits Mburu’s village as a local celebrity.
Deeply concerned by Kenya’s campaign of ethnic cleansing after the disputed 2007 presidential election between incumbent Mwai Kibaki and defeated opponent Raila Odinga, Mburu and his cousin, fellow U.N. human rights worker Jane Wanjiru Muigai, return to their homeland and look in on the students. Back’s roots as the child of Holocaust victims adds a sense of history repeating itself, while the outcome for the young students is a mixture of success and disappointment.
Production package is very glossy, and most of the storytelling techniques deployed are bland and conventional, from the action of a competitive contest to the focus on a trio of subjects.