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Inside Envision: Jennifer Arnold’s A Small Act

Presented by the IFP and UN, Envision is a daylong program dealing with the addressing of global issues through documentary. It takes place Saturday, July 10, and you can learn more here. Jennifer Arnold’s A Small Act is one of two features that will be screened at the event.

As an impoverished boy in Kenya, Chris Mburu received the fortune of one person’s small donation. When WWII-survivor Hilde Back anonymously sponsored an African child’s education, Chris not only went through school but also became a Harvard-educated human rights lawyer for the UN, all unbeknownst to Hilde. So inspired, Chris and his cousin Jane Wanjiru Muijai started the Hilde Back fund, their own scholarship fund to help Kenyan children pay to go to secondary school. In the vibrant documentary A Small Act, filmmaker Jennifer Arnold explores the world of “every dollar helps” and the incredible ripple effects possible. Arnold captures the story of Chris’s life, as Chris travels to meet Hilde for the first time, the developing process of the new Hilde fund and the lives of three children who may benefit from it.

A Small Act director Jennifer Arnold.

Filmmaker: How did you hear about Chris and Hilde in the first place?

Arnold: I went to the University of Nairobi as an undergraduate for a year abroad and Jane, Chris’s cousin, she and I lived next door to each other in the dorms. I stayed in touch with her and wanted to give money to a kid in Kenya. So I called her and said, “Who’s trustworthy? I want to make sure that the money’s going to get to the kids. I don’t want it stolen.” She told me “My cousin and I are starting a fund, and he’s looking for a sponsor,” then started telling me the story. I thought it would be an amazing doc.

Chris had met Hilde for the first time already so I felt like, “Oh it already happened, that’s a bummer because it would’ve been a great film.” Then I had found out that he had videotaped her coming to Kenya and I said, “Please send me that videotape!” He sent me this VHS extended play three-hour tape of which none of was really usable. In that tape we saw an image of another guy with a camera and tracked him down. Once we realized that we had enough video of their first meeting, we could actually pick up the story and keep going. When we heard the story he was going to meet her for the second time.

Filmmaker: While everyone with a camera is not necessarily a narrative filmmaker, documentary filmmakers could be helped immeasurably by people documenting their lives.

Arnold: If we didn’t have the moment of Chris and Hilde first meeting, we wouldn’t have made the film. That was the heart of the story.

Filmmaker: Hilde seems pretty shy in general. How was it walking into her life?

Arnold: There were a couple of things that happened starting out. One is that we heard the story and really just had to go. We didn’t have any research time. So I did a phone interview with Chris and felt, alright, he’s articulate, intelligent. I’m sure we can work it out where they’ll be ok on camera. And Hilde doesn’t really talk on the phone, she doesn’t have email, she corresponds by letter. So I wrote her a letter and asked her some questions and she wrote me back a long letter and said she was willing to do the documentary with me, but she didn’t want to meet me beforehand. She said we could film her birthday party but we had to come the day of the party. She didn’t want to be bothered outside of that. I begged and pleaded to at least be able to see the apartment.

So we went over there met her for the very first time and she was so eco-conscious. She had two 15-watt fluorescent bulbs in the entire place. So we ended up getting bulbs and lamps and she couldn’t believe that we were going to waste so much electricity, in her mind. Sshe was a little bit upset that we were coming in like that but she calmed down right away and really took to us and liked the idea of the film. She opened up eventually, but at first she definitely didn’t want her life disturbed.

Arnold: Chris on the other hand seems to understand the power of a film. How well did he grasp the whole process?

Filmmaker: Chris is a really confident guy, so he was sure that he knew exactly what we were doing. In his mind the docs that he has seen were like sports channel docs. He told us he’d seen a great doc about Arnold Palmer. We would frequently be interviewing him and he would give a really long convoluted answer. We really just want to make sure that we’re clear about what happened in his childhood. He would combine five or six stories into one answer. So we asked him, “Chris, could you possibly talk to us again about this, but don’t go off on a whole tangent about x, y or z.” And he said, “Really? Can’t you just have the narrator do that?” We told him there probably wasn’t going to be a narrator, that his interview is going to be like the narration. He was so confused by that. He thought you can’t have a doc without a narrator. I think he did have an idea about what a film would be like but I don’t think it was this film that he had in mind. He did end up really loving the film.

In terms of the storyline, I don’t think [Chris] really knew what we were doing with the kids. We didn’t involve them that much in that process. They knew we were following kids, they knew we had talked to kids in five or six different schools and they were aware of which kids we were following but I don’t think anyone had any idea, in Kenya at least, how the film would be structured or how it would come together.

Filmmaker: What attracted you to that power of the subject’s voice talking over the traditional “voice of God.”

Arnold: When I heard the story I felt that it was very incredible and had a lot of elements. I’ve never really been attracted to docs that use a written narrative with voiceover. I’ve always felt that a story told from the subject’s mouth is more powerful. In this it’s such an unbelievable story. If you had scripted this as a narrative, no one would ever buy it. So I really wanted it to come from the people who experienced it since it is so fantastical. It has all of these elements of fate that if they were pushed by a narrator it would have been cheesy. Already it is very hopeful and we tried to ride a really fine line between the sentimentality and the fantastic elements of the story and sort of come to the harsh realities of it. We didn’t want to make it sappy. But we also knew that it called for some magic. I think a narrator would have killed a lot of that.

Filmmaker: At what point in the process did you start worrying about distribution for the film? Having HBO involved early is helpful and lucky.

Arnold: HBO came in when we had a two-hour 15-min cut and the film’s now an hour and a half. They came in before we had found out about Sundance, but we had already shaped the project and put our stamp on it, set the tone for it. Even though we had investors it was definitely a very independent project with a really small crew. When we started we didn’t really have a lot of money and had a lot of passion like any other independent film. From the beginning we knew we wanted it to get seen, and we knew that doing a doc might not be the most commercial idea but that the story is really hopeful, it’s not a harsh doc. We hoped to make the best film we could make, hoped to make the story as strong as we could make it and a lot of people talked to us about outreach and asked us “Did you really try to get it so people would donate to the fund?” and those kinds of questions. We just wanted to make a great story, that was our goal. And if we could do that, we’d find an outlet. If you worry about that kind of stuff while you’re putting the story together you’ll just go crazy.

Filmmaker: Speaking of the money: You do have at least a few good stories. At one of the Q and A sessions at Sundance, someone stood up right there wanting to give the fund a check.

Arnold: It started with one person standing up and offering to give $5000 and someone else saying they’d match that. Over the course of 10 days at Sundance the audience members donated $90,000. Since that time someone who saw the movie, who’s a philanthropist and has another foundation that does work in Africa, has decided to give $250,000 to the fund.

Filmmaker: Had that person heard of the fund before?

Arnold: No, they learned about it from the movie, seeing it at a film festival. Not only that, they’re talking with Chris and Jane about having them, not work for them, but having a lot of meetings with the foundation to see how the bigger foundation runs. I know that Jane is particularly concerned that if they got a big sum of money that it could crumble the foundation because it is so small. So she is taking a leave of absence from her job at the UN for at least for a couple months to work with the fund. I know that they’re expanding from a village-wide program to a nationwide program. Instead of 10 kids, they’re taking 100 kids and that number will get bigger. They’re trying to grow slowly and trying to put a team in place that is not just a village team, but one that has a little more experience.

Filmmaker: How have you found yourself dealing with getting involved with the personal lives of your subjects?

Arnold: All the time. it was really hard to figure out what to do. When we were there, we spent months with these families. You get really attached to them but as a filmmaker I felt that I couldn’t get involved in their lives, I can’t change the story as I’m filming. There’s no way I can do that. I knew that I didn’t want to be in the film. Any doc filmmaker, just by showing up, they’re already changing something. All the neighbors in that Kenyan village were saying, “You’ve got white people coming to your house. What’s going on?” We stood out. It changes the dynamic no matter what. But we didn’t want to get directly involved in their lives at all.

When we came home and started cutting the footage it seemed almost abusive, to capture the story of these people and knowing the situation they’re in so intimately. And they know that we’re done filming, we’re not gonna change the course of the story as it lives inside the film so why can’t we try to give back to this community now that let us into their homes.

Filmmaker: How was it to see the education trouble there and come back here and see the education trouble here?

Arnold: It was crazy. We kept hearing about Waiting for Superman and once we got into Sundance all of the programmers were telling us you’ve gotta see it, you’ve gotta see these two movies back to back. It’s so insane. They’re similar problems, not the exact same problems. When you boil it down to the most human element, it’s kids who want a future and families who want their kids to have a future and they just don’t have the means to get the education that they want. The fact of that situation exists here and there.

Filmmaker: Were there other misconceptions that people have about Kenya that you were able to put in the film?

There was so much. When we set out to do the film, the reason I wanted to do it in the first place was because I do know a lot of Kenyans having gone to the University of Nairobi. All of my friends from there, granted they are university students, they’re all doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and they’re all financially very stable. Much more than my friends in LA because most of them [in Los Angeles] are independent filmmakers and we all can never really figure out where our next paycheck is gonna come from. But my Kenyan friends they probably make much more money even in American dollars than my US friends.

And having seen all of these docs about refugees and child soldiers — they’re about very important topics but I felt like no one was showing this other piece of Kenyan society, which is the middle-class. They are really growing and are doing a lot of development work, making a lot of change. Not just in Kenya but in Africa and the world in general. I liked the element in this story that Hilde was a genocide survivor and Chris was the one out there, the civil rights worker, fighting for everything. I don’t think anyone actually notices, but I really like that the roles were reversed in this story. It gives the idea that anyone can end up in a situation that is awful the way that Hilde did and it doesn’t matter if you’re Rwandan or Congolese or from northern Uganda. It can happen anywhere in the world. I liked that Chris was the one out there trying to do good.

Of course when there was the violence that broke out in Kenya all of a sudden we were basked with this stereotypical African story of conflict and we had all these images of poverty. I was hoping we could counterbalance that with Chris and Jane. It mattered a lot to me. There were a lot of scenes especially with Jane where she was out shopping for real estate, living a very middle-class life in Kenya. Chris unfortunately was busy at work and he didn’t get to Kenya until much later . Ultimately when we did the cut of the film, Chris was the lead story and Jane is more of a supporting story so we ended up pulling a lot of those images of middle-class Kenya out simply because Chris wasn’t in the scenes, only Jane was.

Filmmaker: The timing of the election was important to the film, education and politics, promises and talk, hopeful peace and riots. What are the political attitudes there recently?

Arnold: I was back there in March, and it was a quick trip so I wouldn’t say I could answer that with any expert way about what’s going on right now in Kenya, but I’ll tell that when all of that violence and the conflict happened and it when it turned ethnic, there were a couple of things happening. The majority of the Kenyan population that I talked to, which was a fairly wide cross section, felt that this conflict and this violence was something that was being created by the politicians and the population in general did not want it. They were not gonna have it. So it was really, individuals who said we’re not gonna do this.

There was this one day in particular, it was a day of prayer. every church no matter what the denomination, got together and prayed for peace. It was something that was really pushed by the everyday individuals. The politicians had almost nothing to do with it. Because of that I think that people in Kenya definitely felt frightened that it had gone that far because almost everyone in East Africa knows the history of Rwanda, where there was an initial conflict before the 1994 full-blown genocide. It peaked…it didn’t go away but it was controlled. Then a few years later it burst out again on an even bigger scale and I think people in Kenya were really concerned that it could happen at all in Kenya. There was a big push for peacefulness, and talks.

Filmmaker: Your film has a connection to the IFP, right?

Arnold: Yeah. As a filmmaker I was an alum of the IFP Director’s Lab and also the [Film Independent] Fast Track program (for a different film.) A Small Act got the Film Independent Ell/Garnier Director’s Fellowship award at the Independent Spirit awards. So that went toward the final deliverables for the film. It’s a post-production finishing grant.

Filmmaker: How did their involvement help the film progress?

Arnold: It was actually sort of a big turning point for me. I went to UCLA film school and had a short called Maid of Honor and it went to Sundance and it sold to HBO. After that I was trying to get together a [narrative] feature and that fell apart. I ended up doing a documentary and getting into the documentary world, which I hadn’t expected for myself. So when I got into the Director’s Lab it was a chance for me to work with actors again, and it really refueled my passion for film and really kicked me up a notch. Even though I’m back in docs again, doing that Director’s Lab gave me another level of confidence. It also gave me a lot of inspiration. It was a group of 8 people – you have a mentor, you’re in this totally safe environment where you can take all these risks that you can’t take if you’re out in the world trying to make a real film. You can experiment and try stuff. I think it just put me back in touch with all the things that I had loved about making films, and got me back a little bit to the artistic side, even thought that sounds so cheesy it’s totally true.

For the Fast Track project I met a lot of people that I’m still in touch with today, so when I have a new idea or when I’m trying to put a project together, I can actually call a lot of people that I originally met at Fast Track and talk to them about the project. If it’s not right for them, they’ll refer me to other people. It has really been a great resource.

Filmmaker: Even with great, uplifting subject matter, it seems like documentary filmmakers can’t just get money instantly and start shooting right away. How hard was it to find funding?

Arnold: I heard the story about 2 1/2 months before we had to start shooting. I was gonna go back to meet Hilde for her birthday party and that was the week we ended up shooting. I went to a company called Cherry Sky Films and got in touch with them because one of the other directors in the Directors’ Lab had worked with them. I’d met some people briefly, but he’s the one who really pushed me to go and talk to them and they gave me money in the meeting to start shooting. Which I know never ever happens.

It wasn’t a ton of money, it was enough to start shooting. But without them I don’t think we could have made this project. We set a start date and we made a list of places we thought we might get financing and support from. And we set out to shoot on September 26. My birthday, that’s why I can remember it. I got on a plane on September 26th.

Then we came home from shooting and we were running out of money. We met someone indirectly again through Film Independent, it was a producer who was a friend of a friend who I met during Fast Track who optioned a teenaged boy motorcycle script [called Speedway] that I had written, the furthest thing from this doc. He didn’t really do docs but he knew someone who knew, etc etc. We ended up getting our next chunk of money that way. For the final money, HBO saw a 15-minute sample reel and they ended up giving us the money to finish it. So we’re the rare story where it worked out.

Top photo by Patti Lee.

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