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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 05/27/2011

The 84-year-old first grader — for real

The new movie “The First Grader” seems so far-fetched that you could be forgiven for thinking that it is fiction. It isn’t.

The film tells the story of Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge, a man in his 80s who is desperate to learn to read after spending his youth fighting for Kenya’s liberation from British colonial rule, including long periods in detention camps where he was tortured .

After the Kenyan government promised free education for children in 2003, the Mau Mau veteran knocked on the door of a primary school on a remote mountain in the Kenyan bush. He asked to be seated along with the other students, first graders about 6 years old.

Maruge was initially denied a seat, but the head teacher fought to get him admitted. The film explores his relationship with her and the students, even as it flashes back to his brutalization in the camps.

Maruge started school in 2004 at the age of 84 (he believed he was born in 1920, although he had no official birth certificate), and he indeed learned how to read.

His story became an international sensation, and in 2004 he flew to New York — the first time he was on a plane — to address the United Nations on the importance of free education for children.

I’m not a film critic and don’t mean to play one on this blog (here’s The Post’s review), but any movie about an old man who has a fierce thirst for an education and who says without sounding sappy, “Reading is the end of poverty,” is worth a look.

There are dozens of children in the film, which was filmed on location in Eldoret, Kenya; the director, Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”), cast kids who lived in the remote location and who had never seen a film or television before his crew arrived. It is not, however, geared for children; the scenes that depict the torture that Maruge underwent are disturbing.

And it doesn’t precisely hew to the original story; the head teacher who helped him was older than Naomie Harris, the British actress who plays the role convincingly.

But the story is real and so unusual that you might have thought that Hollywood would have been jumping to help Chadwick get the film made. He said that potential backers told him it would only work if he cast Morgan Freeman or a similarly well-known actor. Instead, Chadwick got support in Britain, and decided to cast a Kenyan as Maruge, the unheralded Oliver Litondo.

The filming was itself an education.

Chadwick said the children who played the students kept asking for lessons to be put on the blackboard — not for the movie but so they could learn. The film served as a springboard for Kenyans who didn’t know much national history to ask their parents and grandparents about what happened decades ago.

Both Chadwick and Harris said the joy and hunger for knowledge they saw in the kids taught them something about the power of the human spirit.

“The amazing thing about those children is that they live without running water, without electricity, without much of anything, but they know things,” Chadwick said. “If one of the crew got sick, the Masai children would go into the bush to find someting that could help. . . . The children know how to fix things. So we taught them, and they taught us too.”

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By  |  05:00 AM ET, 05/27/2011

 
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