In Talmud Yerushalmi it is written, “I myself found fully grown carob trees in the world; as my fathers planted for me before I was born so do I plant for those who will come after me.”
There is a retired schoolteacher living in Stockholm, Hilde Back, who may never have read that sentence, although she is Jewish.
But she has lived it. A refugee from the Nazis whose parents were killed in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, she chose to contribute to a scholarship fund for elementary school children in Kenya, sponsoring a boy named Chris Mburu. Her simple act of generosity came full circle in ways she couldn’t have predicted.
Mburu became a prominent human rights lawyer working for the United Nations, and established a scholarship fund for children from his region of Kenya. He named it the Hilde Back Education Fund.
The story of these intertwined lives is the starting point for Jennifer Arnold’s new documentary, “A Small Act,” which opens here on Oct. 29. It is a film that tries to stuff several stories into a mere 87 minutes and, to a surprising degree, succeeds in doing so.
Secondary school in Kenya is not free. Tuition is about $40 a month, an onerous burden for rural families who may be earning about a dollar a day each for picking and sorting coffee beans. As Chris bluntly tells the filmmakers, “If I hadn’t been sponsored I wouldn’t have made it to secondary school.” He did considerably more, going to Nairobi University and Harvard Law School.
The experience was an exhilarating one for Mburu.
“At Harvard I felt empowered,” he says. “This is the kid from the village in one of the best schools in the world. I thought of Hilde as this angel who walked into my life and fixed it.”
Arnold makes a nice link by cutting from Chris extolling his “angel” to Back remembering how painful it was for her in 1938 when she was told she would no longer be allowed to attend school because she was a Jew. Throughout “A Small Act,” the filmmakers make small but effective connections between Stockholm and rural Kenya, between Back and Mburu, beginning with a credit sequence that is simply a series of gracefully matched cuts from the blue skies of the Scandinavian city to those of the African countryside, from water dancing in the air from a fountain to a gentle rainfall on a dirt road.
The story of Chris’ decision to finally seek out and meet Hilde and the warm relationship that developed between them might not have been sufficient to sustain a feature-length film, but Arnold is actually more interested in the next generation of potential Chris Mburus, a trio of Kenyan children, Kiwani, Caroline and Ruth, who are preparing for the KPCE, the national test for children who are completing elementary school, which will help determine if they will be among the handful of students who receive a full scholarship from the education fund. Arnold juggles their stories, each compelling in itself, along with Chris’ friendship with Hilde and their own histories, but through the first half of the film there is another faintly heard drumbeat — the occasional passing of campaign sound trucks as the Kenyan presidential election approaches.
That barely glimpsed motif becomes more insistent as the children actually take the exam just before the election, which ended badly, with intertribal violence following charges of vote fraud. Suddenly Chris, who has worked for the UN in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Uganda, finds himself sitting in Switzerland watching his own country smoldering in a way with which he is all too familiar.
At first glance, “A Small Act” looks to be a bit unbalanced, as if the shifting forces of personal history and national history crisscross and disrupt the filmmakers’ expectations. Yet the result is actually quite satisfying. Arnold has set out the thematic links adroitly: Hilde was a victim of racism and genocide, Chris is a lawyer whose ambit is to curb those twin scourges; she was an educator, he was a direct recipient of her generosity who has passed along the gift of education; at the same time that their friendship has become almost familial, he is facing the potential for genocide in his own country.
Consequently, that material pretty much takes care of itself, and the story of the three children is inherently compelling. When we watch the board of the fund discussing the awarding of the scholarships, we are brought face to face with ongoing socio-economic realities that plague Kenya regardless of which tribe has the upper hand in the government. It is a difficult fit, but Arnold brings it off with aplomb.
Towards the end of the film, Hilde says that the reason she wanted to help out someone was that “I was helped … when I came to Sweden.”
Someone has to keep planting those carob trees. n
“A Small Act,” written and directed by Jennifer Arnold, opens on Friday, Oct. 29 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). For information call (212) 255-2243 or go to www.quadcinema.com <http://www.quadcinema.com> .