Chris Mburu, a United Nations human rights advocate who has dedicated his life to battling genocide and crimes against humanity, decides to pay tribute to his benefactor - a woman he has never met - by establishing the Hilde Back Education Fund to sponsor some of the brightest, yet most disadvantaged, of Kenya's next
generation. Secondary school can cost less than $10 a week in his homeland, but even that small amount is out of reach for families who earn about $1.50 a day picking coffee.
A SMALL ACT follows the competition between three gifted students vying for a scholarship that may be their only chance to continue school and change their lives. Kimani, a smiling, high-spirited boy, sees education as the only way he will be able to take care of his ailing mother. His academic rivals are the shy and quietly ambitious Ruth and her best friend Caroline, who also struggle because they can't afford to go to secondary school.
When Mburu creates his scholarship program, he tracks down 80-year-old Hilde Back in Sweden and convinces her to come to Kenya to see the result of her generosity. To his surprise, he learns that his benefactor is a Holocaust survivor who fled Germany as a child, leaving her parents behind. In turn, Back is astonished to learn her small contribution enabled Mburu to go so far, growing up to fight genocide himself.
As the school term comes to an end in their village, Kimani, Ruth and Caroline take a nationwide achievement test that determines their eligibility for Mburu's
scholarship program. After numerous delays, the test results finally arrive, but the country is engulfed in politically-charged ethnic violence, jeopardizing the students' dreams.
Director Jennifer Arnold, who attended the University of Nairobi in the early nineties with Chris Mburu's cousin, Jane Wanjiru Muigai (who is also featured in the documentary), challenges African stereotypes with A SMALL ACT. "I began making this film to tell a riveting, character-based story that I hoped would inspire audiences to do their own 'small acts'," she explains. "There are huge stakes for these kids, who are literally fighting for their lives by competing for a scholarship. The characters in this film aren't victims; they've achieved great success or they have the potential to do so. These kids may one day impact people across the world as Chris Mburu has, and Hilde Back before him.
Underscoring education's crucial role in alleviating poverty and conflict, A SMALL ACT shows that no gesture is too small to effect 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."
The film has already inspired enormous audience response, as well as donations, at festivals domestically and abroad. It is also the centerpiece of "What's Your Small Act?," a campaign that uses the documentary to encourage people to participate in "small acts" in their own lives and communities. HBO, in collaboration with Network for Good, will make "good cards" available to audiences at select regional screenings, as well as on a first-come, first-serve basis to a limited number of viewers who are fans of the HBO Documentary Films Facebook page (facebook.com/hbodocs) or followers of HBO Documentary Films on Twitter (twitter.com/hbodocs).
Jennifer Arnold graduated from UCLA and University of Nairobi with a B.A. in African history, returning to UCLA for an M.F.A. in film. Her award-winning short film
"Maid of Honor," screened at Sundance before airing on HBO/CINEMAX and Film 4. Arnold directed the internet series "The Mullet Chronicles," which was developed into the documentary "American Mullet," and released by Palm Pictures and Lionsgate. She also co-directed the documentary "Where the Girls Are," executive produced by Ethan Coen, and wrote the script "Speedway," which was selected for Berlin Talent Campus' script clinic, IFP's No Borders and FIND's Directors Lab/Fast Track Program.
A SMALL ACT was written and directed by Jennifer Arnold; producers, Jennifer Arnold, Patti Lee and Jeffrey Soros; executive producer, Joan Huang; cinematographer,
Patti Lee; editors, Carl Pfirman and Tyler Hubby; composer, Joel Goodman. For HBO: senior producer, Lisa Heller; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.