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Interview With Jennifer Arnold

Kids playing with phone

HBO

How did you come to make A Small Act? 

JENNIFER ARNOLD

I came to this story because I actually wanted to sponsor a student in Kenya. I went to University of Nairobi for my junior year abroad, and one of the characters in the film, Jane Mugai, was my dorm mate. So I called her up, I said, "Who will put the money to good use?" Basically, who's not going to steal this money? And she told me, "My cousin Chris (who would become the main subject in the film) and I have a fund," and she started telling me how they were looking for his sponsor, and immediately, I knew that there was probably a film there.

I was really interested in telling a success story out of Africa. I think there are so many documentaries that deal with really tough, important issues in Africa, but this film presents a flip side, because the main characters are successful, middle class Kenyans. They might have started in a poor village, but with access to education, they've done very, very well for themselves. And that was the thing that originally drew me to the story--showing the middle class in Kenya.

HBO

One of the really amazing parts of the movie is (film subject) Hilde's story and the fact that she's a survivor of the Holocaust.

JENNIFER ARNOLD

It's funny. Hilde doesn't really consider herself a deeply religious person. But the truth is, because she is Jewish, she had to leave Germany, and her parents were both sent to concentration camps. So that history of being Jewish - not just being Jewish, but being Jewish in Germany during WWII - that's the thing I think really defines her view on giving.  Hilde was helped by a total stranger-it was someone she didn't know that helped her get out of Germany, and because of that, I think that's why she wants to give back. The fact that she was a stranger who gave to Chris, she was really just continuing the thing that was once done for her. 

HBO

The film explores poverty in an interesting way.

JENNIFER ARNOLD

I think it's tricky doing a film that deals with themes of poverty because there are lots of films that deal with that subject, some of which can border on being exploitative. We want people to have sympathy for the kids in our film, but we also want to present them as full characters. If you're dealing with poverty, as these kids are, it's much harder to reach your full potential. In this movie the kids are struggling to stay in school. One of the themes of the film also deals with the link between education, poverty and violence. Chris argues that an uneducated person is easier to manipulate, and they're much more desperate. But if that same person gets an education, they have opportunities and are much less likely to turn to violence.  So we weren't trying to make a film about poverty, but we wanted to link poverty to a lot of the other issues in the documentary.

HBO

Did the story you were trying to tell change as you were shooting it? 

JENNIFER ARNOLD

When we first set out to tell this story, we knew we were going to tell the story of Chris and Hilde. We also knew that we were going to follow kids who were applying for Chris's scholarship. But we didn't really expect to have a story line that was about the link between education and violence. We didn't know that there was going to be a turn in the movie, because there is a point in the movie where there's a presidential election, and violence breaks out. And that was totally unexpected. It definitely influenced the way we shaped the film.

"... making this film really made me believe in the power of one, and the power of all of us to do something, however small."

HBO

Tell us about Sundance and some of the unexpected reactions you received at the film's screening there. 

JENNIFER ARNOLD

When we went to Sundance, we really hoped people would like the film. You know, you spend a lot of time on a movie, you hope audiences like it. But the thing we didn't expect was that audience members, right after they saw this movie, started saying, "Well how much does it cost to sponsor a student? Because I want to do my own small act." And they started coming down to me and to Chris and Hilde, who were also at Sundance.  And literally, they started handing us checks. There was one person in the audience who said, "I have five thousand dollars, who's going to match it?" And suddenly, all these donations were coming in. And over the course of ten days, which is the length of the Sundance film festival, ninety thousand dollars was donated to the fund. 

On top of that there were these situations like Bill Gates being in the audience. He waited in line to meet Chris, and Hilde, and we heard he cried during the film. It's one thing to meet a movie star. That's exciting. But to meet Bill Gates, who's sort of one of the greatest philanthropists of our time, and have him say that he cried during the movie, that was definitely a highlight.  And we met George Soros, and ended up having
lunch with him.  It was just - Sundance was sort of an experience that is indescribable.

HBO

Has the film screened in Kenya?

JENNIFER ARNOLD

After we finished Sundance, I had the opportunity to go back to Kenya, and show it to everyone who was in the film. First we showed the three lead kids, Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline, and we showed their families. And when they saw the film, I think they were almost in shock. They didn't care that their deepest secrets were going be on television in America, but they couldn't believe that everyone in the village was going know all their problems. Because Kikuyu people - that's the tribe in the film - they're pretty private.  But we spoke and I explained why I included what I did, and I said, "Are you worried about it? Should I show it?" And they said, "Show it." And by the time we showed it to the whole village, the three kids in the film stood up after the screening and said, "That's me, I'm the one in that film, people are gonna see my story all over the world," and I think everyone in the village felt proud to be part of the movie. It was my favorite screening.  

HBO

Do you keep in touch with everyone?

JENNIFER ARNOLD

I'm in touch with all of the subjects in the film. I was just in Kenya a few months ago for our screening. I talk to Chris probably once a week just to get updates from him. Hilde doesn't like to talk on the phone, and she doesn't have a computer, so she doesn't e-mail, so Hilde and I write letters.  

HBO

What would you say to someone who says, I'm just one person? How can I make a difference?

JENNIFER ARNOLD

I was raised to believe that everyone should try to do their part to do good. You don't have to be Mother Teresa; you don't have to be Gandhi. And making this film really made me believe in the power of one, and the power of all of us to do something, however small.

A Small Act

Summer Series 2010