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TIFF: National Geographic Promotes ‘First Grader’

Crowd-pleasing film about 84-year-old student gets U.S. release

When it finished as runner-up to “The King’s Speech” at in Toronto’s People’s Choice Award balloting, “The First Grader” was something of a surprise – a film set in Kenya, made by British director Justin Chadwick with financing from the BBC, about an 84-year-old former Mau Mau rebel’s unlikely return to school. It was not high on most people’s radar going into the festival, but its emotional story clearly made it an audience favorite, both at Toronto and, before that, at Telluride.

And now National Geographic Films, which is perhaps best known for documentaries like “March of the Penguins” , has acquired “The First Grader” for U.S. distribution.

The First GraderWhen the film premiered at Telluride, Variety’s Peter Debruge said the film was “relatively conventional in the telling and more than a little manipulative,” but said that the “admirable effort manages to do more than inspire, educating auds with an important chapter in African history.”

“Although the arc of the story might be familiar, the setting and characters are fresh,” wrote Stephen Farber in the Hollywood Reporter. “Art house audiences are likely to discover and embrace the film.”

The acquisition was made by National Geographic Films chief Daniel Battsek, late of Miramax, who told Anne Thompson that he'd been looking for just the right film to launch his tenure at Nat Geo. “It’s not only about historic political events, but it tells a personal story with great warmth and humor,” Battsek said of "The First Grader."