Under Review: ‘A Small Act’


Preparing homework by candlelight, living without electricity, and intermittently missing school to harvest coffee beans, Kimani has still been the top student at a rural elementary school in Kenya where a little bell is rung by hand to begin classes each day.

Then there is the disruptive bloody rebellion after the contentious 2007 Kenyan election.

Real-time docs have an outline of the scope and sequence, but unanticipated events bring a richness to the genre that mirrors life, with its unexpected twists and tragedies. It is Kimani’s tribe that becomes the victim of the insurrection and the production crew’s challenge to navigate. The intended focus of this story, the transformative effect of small acts of kindness, was the creation and development of an educational fund set up by a recipient of a high school scholarship in the ‘70s.

In Kenya, where coffee pickers earn $1.50 a day, it costs $10 a week for a high school education ($540 for one year). About 50% of those who complete grade 8 cannot afford to attend high school. This situation leaves a worrisome amount of children excluded from further training and creates an elitist divide that only accelerates when only 10% of the high school graduates can attend college.

What motivates Kimani, whose greatest wish is to be instrumental in bringing a sense of community and peace to his land, to do his homework until late hours is his small chance for a scholarship, awarded to the top graduating students each year from ten different public schools in his region. This film follows him and two girls, Ruth and Caroline, of similar circumstance, as they desperately compete for a chance to break their own family cycle of poverty and realize their dreams.

If they fail the girls will most likely become mothers within a couple of years, destined to carry water, harvest village crops and work all day to assure basic sustenance for their families. Kimani would be left to carry on with his family, harvesting on a subsistence level in the coffee fields.

Who wins the scholarships? How closely does the violent rebellion affect our three children and the scholarship process? Suspenseful viewing and surprising answers grip the viewer in real time reporting.

As the documentary unfolds, the surprising, ironic force behind the scholarship fund, to which all three have applied, is revealed.

“A Small Act” goes back to the act of secreting a Jewish child, Hilde Back, to Sweden 70 years ago when her parents were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz. Back innocently keeps the chain of beneficence alive as an adult by donating money each year to finance a high school education for a bright but poor Kenyan boy, Chris Mburu.

This gifted child of poverty, who was on his way to being denied a high school education, ends up at Harvard. Once Mburu becomes a successful attorney and UN official, he begins to look for his benefactor.

He didn’t know anything but her name, Hilde Back. So it was with ironic surprise that when the two finally met he learned about her tragic past as a Holocaust survivor. The impact of her gift thunders through the screen with an acknowledgment of the longitudinal scale of redemptive human possibility when you learn Mburu’s UN position is heading up the anti-discrimination section of the United Nations Human Rights Agency.

As the lights came on at its initial screening this year at the Sundance Festival, a woman stood up asking the audience to match her $5,000 for Mburu’s Back Educational Fund, named for his sponsor, Hilde Back. By the time the festival was over $90,000.00 had been raised.

Even though “A Small Act” has been shown on HBO, screenings are now only available through schools, churches and human rights groups at these locations:

Written in the film’s press release, it is noted that “…no gesture is too small to affect tremendous change. Says Chris Mburu, ‘I would like these kids to be educated… because once you have a society that is very, very ignorant, it becomes the breeding ground for violence…for misinformation…for intolerance.’ As the amazed Hilde Back says, ‘If you do something good, it can spread in circles, like rings on the water.’”

Film Credits

Studio: HBO Films
Release: Jan. 22, 2010 at Sundance Film Festival
Director: Jennifer Arnold
Writer: Jennifer Arnold
Principal Cast: Chris Mburu and Jane Wanjiru
Genre: Documentary
Awards: Nominated for Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Hot Docs Film Festival Top Ten Audience Favorite
Runtime: 88 min
Country: USA
Language: Gikuyu | English | Swahili | Swedish with English subtitles
Web site:

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3 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Bev #

    34 W 13th St, New York, NY


    Schedule for all screenings:

  2. Bev #

    Email from the filmmakers:

    Free screening for “A Small Act” in Los Angeles on January 4, 2011 at the Hammer Museum. Director Jennifer Arnold as well as producers Patti Lee and Jeffrey Soros will be there to field questions after the film.

    DVD is coming out in the spring.

  3. Bev #

    Roger Ebert named A SMALL ACT
    as one of the Best Documentaries
    of 2010.