This is an interview with filmmaker Jennifer Arnold about the documentary A Small Act. As the top-ranked student in his rural Kenyan school district, Chris Mburu had little hope of a future beyond coffee picking - until Hilde Back, a Swedish pre-school teacher, decided to sponsor him. Her monthly donation of just a few dollars ultimately paved the way for Mburu to go all the way to Harvard Law School and become a United Nations human rights advocate. When Mburu creates his scholarship program, he tracks down 80-year-old Hilde Back in Sweden and convinces her to come to Kenya to see the result of her generosity. To his surprise, he learns that his benefactor is a Holocaust survivor who fled Germany as a child, leaving her parents behind. In turn, Back is astonished to learn her small contribution enabled Mburu to go so far, growing up to fight genocide himself. A Small Act follows the competition between three gifted students vying for a scholarship that may be their only chance to continue school and change their lives. Underscoring education's crucial role in alleviating poverty and conflict, A Small Act shows that no gesture is too small to effect tremendous change.
Question: How did you find out about Chris?
Jennifer Arnold: The way that I initially found out about the story was actually through trying to sponsor a kid. I used to go to the University of Nairobi during my year abroad when I was an undergraduate and Chris's cousin, who's actually in the film, her name's Jane Wanjiru Muigai. She lived in the dorm room right next to me and I became friends with her, I stayed friends with her, and I had always remembered that she was sponsored. And years and years later when I was finally in the position where I felt like, 'Yeah I have enough money to try to give back and I really want to sponsor a kid in Kenya,' I called her and I said, "Who's trustworthy?" I wanted to make sure that the money actually made it to the kid, and she started telling me this story about her and her cousin Chris. I'd never met Chris, but she was saying they were starting a fund together and he was looking for the person who sponsored him. They were going to start taking kids in the village where both of them came from, and I knew immediately that it could be a really amazing film.
Question: Did you know what you would find? Did you have any idea?
Jennifer Arnold: We didn't know all of the elements of the story when we set out. When we first started filming, we knew that Chris had actually met Hilde once and when I first heard that I felt like, "Aw, we missed it; it would've been such a great film," but then I found out he had videotaped it. And he sent us the videotape, it was a VHS extended play videotape shot by someone who must've been on a trampoline, so it was just totally unusable. But then in the videotape we saw an image of another guy with a video camera and we ended up finding that guy and his footage was really good. So we knew already that Chris and Hilde had met, we knew a little bit about Hilde's history, and Hilde really hadn't talked about her past at all so we weren't sure if she would talk about it or not. We weren't sure if that would be a big part of our story, and we knew that Chris was going to use his fund to take kids in his village but we didn't know what kids we would find, we didn't know what their back-story would be, we didn't know how many kids the fund would be able to take - so a lot of it was discovered as we went.
Question: How long did you film for?
Jennifer Arnold: We shot in Kenya for three months, and that was actually fairly rushed for us, but we heard the story quite late. When we heard the story, we tried to get money as fast as we could - we got just enough money to shoot and took off - and managed to shoot everything in Kenya in three months, but only because that's all we had. The kids were going to be selected for this scholarship at a certain date and after that date, the story was sort of over. In Europe we shot for two weeks at first, and then we went back for another two weeks - so a month total.
Question: That was pretty quick.
Jennifer Arnold: Yeah, it wasn't a very long shoot.
Question: So after it was all over, what do you take away as a filmmaker?
Jennifer Arnold: As a filmmaker doing the shoot, I learned a lot of things. One is that it's best not to try and do a documentary in a language you can't speak. I can speak some Swahili from having lived in Kenya before so I thought I would be fine, but the entire shoot we were in this small village where everyone speaks Kikuyu. So [for] a lot of the verite scenes, we were shooting them blind; we had no idea what people were saying and when we were editing, we were getting translations back so slowly that we were trying to cut a lot of footage without really understanding what was going on. So on a practical level I don't know that I would ever do that again; who knows, maybe I will. On a personal level, what I learned from doing this shoot is that everyone has some power to make change.
When I started the film I was definitely a cynic, and I'm still a cynic at heart, but through tracking the story I realized that we're each empowered to do something, and that's really important. It doesn't matter how small of an action you take; any little thing can actually ripple out and be big, and so I've sort of become this believer of doing good. I always had that in me, but now I feel like it makes a difference and it's really important. So I hope that through this film, not only will I go out and do little things, but other audience members will also go out and just do something small. Just do what you have time for, money for - but it does make a difference.
Question: What do you think that your audience can do to get involved about improving education?
Jennifer Arnold: I think there are a lot of things that audience members can do. I mean, just on our website, which is www.asmallact.com, or on the HBO documentary site, there are suggestions there for different ways that people can take action. But the most practical and simple thing that people can do is they can either volunteer for an organization that they believe in that's in their neighborhood, and do something in their own community, or you can donate a little bit of money. And it can be to an organization that's right in your hometown, or it can be to an organization that's across the world - like the Hilde Back Education Fund - but each of these little things, they're not wasted, they actually make a huge difference to people. Whether you can see the difference or not, it does make a difference. So those are two very simple ideas, and HBO has partnered with Network for Good, which is at www.networkforgood.org/asmallact. If you put your zip code into that page, you can get a list of organizations that are in your neighborhood. You can also search by keyword; if you want to support an education[al] organization that's in Ghana, you can put in 'education Ghana' and get ideas for where you can donate.
Question: Do you agree with Chris' assertion that lack of education is at the root of all of these problems?
Jennifer Arnold: Well, I think that with a lot of the problems going on today, particularly in Africa, education is a huge factor. I don't think it's the sole reason, but I don't think that Chris believes that either. Having lived in Kenya, and having travelled through a lot of Africa - as well as parts of the world that are struggling and where there's a lot of poverty - I do agree that people should look at long-term solutions, not short-term solutions, and education is one of the long term solutions. You know if there's a society that feels like they don't have any future, which often comes from not having access to education, feeling like, "Well, what am I going to do with my life - I can't even stay in school - how am I going to get anywhere?", then it is much easier for that society to be manipulated by a politician, or for that society to fall into more violent conflict, or for conflict to break out. And in Kenya, it's completely true that you can actually hire a mob to go to a political rally or you can pay a lot of uneducated, very desperate, youth to carry out violence against another group of people; and they might not want to do it - they just really, really need the money. So I think education is one of the biggest keys to development, and I wish that people would focus more on preventative measures like education than relief measures. It takes longer, but in the long run it's a much more stable solution.
Question: Was it dangerous? Were there any tense moments while filming?
Jennifer Arnold: When we first set out to shoot the film, we never expected that there would be any violence in Kenya. We knew that there was an election coming, but we had been told by almost everyone - all our friends, all our friends who are NGOs, all our Kenyan friends - that this election was going to be different. This election was going to be safe. And we didn't really film anything about the election. We had filmed some campaign cars because the loudspeakers on the cars were interfering with our interviews and we wanted to be able to show what that noise was. When the violence broke out, we started to realize-this is what Chris has been talking about - we should make this a part of the film. So we did head out into some of the hot spots that were around Nairobi and we were tear-gassed and we did sort of get into a run-in with some soldiers. I can't say that we ever feared for our lives, but I definitely wouldn't choose to be tear-gassed. So it was dangerous, but I don't think that we ever took too many risks - we never put our lives in danger.
Question: What do you think was the most impactful moment that occurred for you personally while filming?
Jennifer Arnold: I think the hardest thing for me personally while we were filming was watching the kids get their test scores. I don't want to give away too much about the film, but there's this moment where the three lead kids who are in the movie - who are named Ruth, Caroline, and Kimani - their entire future hinges on how they scored on this test. Their ability to get the scholarship hinges on this test score, and you get the test score by text message. They sent in a request for their test score and were expecting to get a text message back in 15 minutes, but instead it took days, and days, and days for them to get their test scores. Then the reactions to their test scores were really unexpected. It was the most stressful moment for the kids, and it was the most stressful moment for us as filmmakers because we had been with these kids for months and we really, really cared about them, and we were watching them suffer as they tried to get their scores.
Question: How did you know that HBO would be a home for 'A Small Act'?
I feel like in today's climate, the best thing you can do for your documentary is to have it be on HBO because, as an artist, you get a lot of support; and then for audiences, it's really the biggest audience you can reach. It was a no-brainer for us to put the film on HBO.