A Small Act

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(357)

Director Jennifer Arnold
Release date: 15 April

This documentary celebrates how sponsoring the education of a child in a poor country can change their life. Usually this kind of story reeks of self-righteous "do-gooding" and repels me, but A Small Act avoids the worst pitfalls and is genuinely moving.

Chris Mburu grew up in rural Kenya. He was poor and his education would have ended at primary level if a woman from Sweden hadn't sponsored him to go to secondary school. With this support he went on to become a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Mburu wanted to offer other children the same chance, so he set up a scholarship fund to help poor school students in the area he was from. He named it after his sponsor, Hilde Back, and he decided to trace her and find out what kind of person had affected his life so powerfully.

Back is a retired teacher who arrived in Sweden in 1940 as a Jewish refugee from Germany. Individual acts of kindness shaped her, but not as much as the power of governments - the Swedish government did not allow her parents in and they died in the Holocaust.

But the film's main focus is on three students attempting to get on Mburu's scholarship programme. They combine a simple joy at learning with the realisation that they could free their families from crippling poverty. Scenes in the classroom show the children working collectively to solve problems, hinting at the potential of the whole class to learn. But only the best scholars will win the scholarships - those who display "leadership qualities".

The children are shown in their social context. Kimani's mother is ill but has to go on working in agony because she can't afford the operation that could cure her. Ruth sometimes misses school because her family need her to work on the farm. Caroline's family are landless and looked down on. Mburu believes that the way to end such poverty is to spread education. The Holocaust and even Kenya's post-election "ethnic cleansing" - which took place while the film was being made - suggest otherwise. Neither the Nazis nor the politicians who sponsored the post-election violence were ignorant. There is a political dimension to such acts of barbarism that cannot simply be resolved by education in the abstract, vital as it is.

The film avoids asking why the children have to pay for school in the first place. University was free when Mburu did his degree, but the onward drive of neoliberalism makes you wonder if that will be the case for these students. It is ironic that when the children are asked what they hope to achieve if they go to university, the first wants to be a banker.

I couldn't help but feel moved and outraged that these children, in Kenya and elsewhere, can still be denied an education when the money is there to provide it.