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Lessons Learned From School and War

Reviews of two serious feature films examining true occurrences: the uplifting "The First Grader" and the brutal "City of Life and Death."
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The First Grader initially looks like a classic three-hanky weepie. An illiterate 84-year old Kenyan decides he wants to learn to read before he dies, and tries to enroll in an elementary school class. He’s turned away and told to go to an adult education center, but there’s none in his area, so he’s eventually allowed to study with the kiddies. This creates all sorts of media attention and controversy — news outlets from around the world cover his story, local bureaucrats fume at the attention he’s getting, and some people believe he’s only doing it for money.

Eventually, however, things settle down, the old man absorbs his ABCs, and lessons are learned about the unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

Yet, as cornpone as this might sound, context is everything in director Justin Chadwick’s film. The First Grader is based on the true story of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge, who accepted at face value the Kenyan government’s 2002 announcement that it was proposing free primary school education for everyone. As it turns out, Maruge had also fought against the British during the 1953 Mau Mau uprising, and was imprisoned and tortured for several years.

Using flashbacks to the period of the rebellion, combined with scenes in which Maruge describes his former life and displays a stubborn determination to educate himself, the film makes a compelling statement: that this old man did not fight and suffer to create a country filled with corruption and fat-cat bureaucrats who seem embarrassed by the pride and defiance of this old warrior. For Maruge is not only struggling for his dignity, but against a system that can barely provide basic needs for its people, in which government functionaries tool around in Mercedes while ordinary folks do not even have the luxury of running water.

Maruge eventually learned to read, and wound up in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest primary school student. He also became so famous that he spoke at the United Nations about the importance of free public education.

But despite its rosy ending, The First Grader leaves you with the distinct impression that when it comes to fairness and equality, Kenya has a long, long way to go.

Among the many atrocities that tarnished the 20th century, one of the most notorious was committed by the Japanese Army in Nanking, China, between December 1937 and February 1938.

This orgy of murder and sexual assault took an estimated 300,000 lives (the exact number remains a question of politics as much as history), and despite numerous eyewitness accounts, has yet to be acknowledged by powerful right-wing elements in Japan. Yet, the Chinese have certainly never forgotten, andCity of Life and Death, a monumental film from director Lu Chuan, is the latest attempt at memorializing the incident.

A movie poster for "City of Light and Death."

A movie poster for "City of Light and Death."

Shot in luminous black-and-white, with staggeringly opulent production values, the brutality shown in the film makes it tough to watch, and it might need a bit more context for Western observers. But there is no doubting the power of the storytelling, which begins with a depiction of the Japanese victory over Chinese forces, then segues into an almost-unending series of interlocked episodes involving everything from mass rape and murder to foraging for food in the occupied city to frenzied negotiations between the Japanese and representatives of neutral powers desperately trying to tamp down the slaughter.

It’s this latter aspect that is particularly intriguing, given the real-life role of John Rabe, a German businessman who helped set up a “safety zone” in the city that saved as many as 200,000 Chinese lives. City of Life and Death features numerous scenes of Rabe and an American missionary named Minnie Vautrin doing their best to ameliorate the horrors in the face of general Japanese indifference and cruelty. Their dogged bravery is both heartrending and uplifting.

Yet, Lu did not set out to make an anti-Japanese polemic. Through the eyes of one of its most prominent characters, a Japanese soldier named Kadokawa, he tries to show that some members of the occupying forces were revolted and shamed by the actions of their colleagues.

“In China, we are educated to see one very basic and simple truth,” Lu says in the film’s production notes. “From the time they’re young, everyone in China is educated to hate the Japanese. … They’re not human beings; they raped women, they raped very young girls, they even raped their own women, … [but] I found the basic truth that a massacre is not a special talent of the Japanese people, it’s a talent of human beings. All kinds of people kill all kinds of people.”

Same as it ever was. City of Life and Death may be about a particular place and time, but its basic message is that evil will always be with us.

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