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Toronto 2010: With 'First Grader,' National Geographic goes back to school

September 20, 2010 |  4:00 pm


One more deal has trickled out of the recently concluded Toronto film Fest, as National Geographic has picked up U.S. rights to "The First Grader," the Telluride and Toronto crowd-pleaser about never being too old too learn.

Justin Chadwick's film tells of an illiterate 84-year-old Kenyan man who, upon hearing the government's promise of a free education, plants himself in a first-grade school and insists he be taught to read.

Oliver Musila Litondo and Naomie Harris star in the film (the latter earning a spot on our breakout actor list out of Toronto), which tickled enough Toronto-goers that it took the runner-up prize at the festival's People's Choice awards.

I didn't talk to Chadwick north of the border, but the filmmaker told my colleague John Horn at Telluride that he endeavored to tell a story both true and inspirational. "The main thing was that it was uplifting," he said of the film (which, incidentally, is based on a Times story). "You have to make something that is relevant these days, and it was a really good story."

Chadwick shot the movie in a Kenyan village that had no electricity and used locals to fill out the cast, in the time-honored tradition of many a world-cinema director.

The acquisition continues a mini-trend for National Geographic, the venerable nature brand that has been expanding into film distribution, of distributing fact-based movies with a global bent. (The company previously picked up the Afghanistan verite documentary "Restrepo.")

By now it's almost hard to run down the Toronto slate and find a movie that wasn't picked up — and thus won't be seen outside the festival. The bigger question may, however, involves the release calendar.

One reason specialized movies such as "Winter's Bone" and "The Kids Are All Right" have done so well this year is because they've had room to breathe on the schedule. Buying the movies is a big step. But with about 15 Toronto movies now likely to get released in the next year — on top of an existing group of independent and specialty pictures — getting these acquisitions a cushy spot on the calendar, and the word-of-mouth that comes with it, may prove the tougher trick.

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "The First Grader." Credit: Original Pictures.


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