How did you come to make A Small Act?
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.
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.
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.
The film explores poverty in an interesting way.
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.
Did the story you were trying to tell change as you were shooting it?
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.