We LOVE it, but there’s no money for movies about Africa.
This refrain was repeated over and over again as I trundled around town pitching the story to anyone who would stand still long enough to listen to my impassioned pitch about an 84 year old Kenyan who showed up at school and demanded to be admitted to first grade. Not exactly sexy subject matter.
These were also pre-Obama days, before Kenya became a household word and when a certain high profile politician astonished us by referring to Africa as a country. This was what we were dealing with. Day after day, the two brave young producers doggedly trotted me out to potential investors - usually after some heavy duty persuading, begging and pleading, to let us in the door (Get real, guys. It’s completely unmarketable).
We were an embarrassment to our agents and managers whose arms we twisted to give us access to people with money. Everybody listened with polite interest but I knew the ka-ching moment was coming, when we were gently asked: Er, so there are no white people in this movie, right? Or: Do you think Sam Jackson could play him? Or: Could Whoopi be the woman?
I totally understand where they were coming from. Making movies is not a charity and our film was a huge risk. They were totally justified in turning us down. Well, anyway… after every door seemed to have shut on us, a funny thing happened on my way to the BBC. I was in London pitching yet another so called unmarketable African story when the executive who passed on it, asked me if there was anything else I was interested in telling him about. So, without much optimism, I launched into my First Grader pitch. He listened thoughtfully to the forty five minute pitch and to my surprise, said: I want you to tell this to David. David, I discovered afterwards, was David Thompson, the head of BBC Films. Minutes later, I was doing my whole spiel again for David who sat quite still all the way through and I nearly fell off my chair when at the end, without missing a beat he simply said: Let’s do it.
This let’s do it attitude became emblematic of the spirit of every single person who signed onto this project. Nobody asked where, what, how or how much. They just threw themselves into it regardless – from the courageous producers and financiers, to the brilliant director, the wonderful actress and lead actor, to the amazing cast and crew. What were the odds of an illiterate octogenarian getting admitted to first grade? About the same as getting a movie made about him. And that’s why next time somebody tells you there’s no money for African movies, don’t listen.
The First Grader opens today.
Ann Peacock is a South African born writer. She has written Goodbye Bafana, A Lesson Before Dying, Nights at Rodanthe among other scripts.