“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem to be absurd and impractical. Yet, I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”
– Anne Frank
Anne Frank wrote those words while locked in an attic with her family, hiding from the Nazis who were Hell-bent on killing them. Some may have said that this idea was insane given the circumstances, but I am naive enough to think that it takes just as much energy to be nice to someone as it is to be cruel. A drop of human kindness makes just as much of an impact as a drop of malice.
I thought of Anne Frank’s statement all through Jennifer Arnold’s lovely documentary A Small Act which chronicles a small act of kindness by one person that besets a lifetime of joy for many other people who might have perished. The movie tells the story of Chris Mburu, a Kenyan who was born dirt poor in an African tribe. As a boy he made good grades in Primary school – which is free in Kenya – but would not have been able to attend Secondary School because his family could not afford it. Fortunately, he made good grades in Primary School and had his secondary education payed for by a Swedish woman that he had never met who donated $15 a month to pay for his education. Through this act of kindness, Mburu was able to attend secondary school where he excelled, then went on to the University of Nairobi and eventually Harvard Law. Today, he is a Human Rights Commissioner at the United Nations.
Mburu was so gratified by the woman’s gift that he began a foundation in her name – The Hilda Back Foundation – to help young African children get a chance at an education. The center of the film is how Chris Mburu gets to meet, for the first time, the woman who made his life possible. Her name is Hilda Back, 85 years-old, a short woman with a kindly face and boundless energy. As a child she had to be sent to Sweden from her native Germany to escape being sent to the death camps by the Nazis. Her family would perish in the Holocaust and Back would remain in Sweden becoming a school teacher. She felt that her small contribution was an act of kindness. She never dreamed how far it would reach.
As we follow Chris’ inevitable meeting with Hilde Back, we are also introduced to several children who are in Primary School, who are trying to get the grades to be able to get on a scholarship program to make it to secondary. They are Caroline, Ruth and Kimani. Their families have almost nothing and no way to simply pay for secondary school. Getting these scores means their very lives, especially for young girls in a country that offers them few choices.
As these kids end their term in Primary school they are given tests to see if they qualify for the scholarship and that makes up some of the most tense and nerve-wracking moments I have ever seen in a movie. I never thought that awaiting test scores – test scores! – could create such suspense. The kids wait to be texted the scores, and wait and wait and wait and wait. Further drama is added by the fact that, due to a presidential election, the grades will be delayed.
I had never considered anyone’s education being a matter of life or death for their family. For these young people – especially the girls – this is all or nothing. Either they will succeed or they will perish in an environment that has nothing positive to offer them. I was especially worried about Caroline, who’s family doesn’t own any land. What options does she have if the test scores don’t measure up? Their fates lie in the hands of those checking their scores. Those outcomes, I must leave for you to discover.
“A Small Act” is as touching and lovely and thrilling as any movie that I can imagine. It argues the value of a great documentary by presenting the kinds of people and events that no screenwriter could ever dream of. When Hilde comes to Kenya, she is greeted like a hero with loving arms and ceremonial garb and it is a moment more heart-wrending than anything I can remember.I don’t want to sound like a feel-good greeting card, but as I watched Chris and Hilde meet, I thought of the roots of Hilde’s kindness. They reached out to Chris who became a scholar, then made his mark at the United Nations working in human rights? How may people’s lives did he touch? If these kids make the grades and go to college and follow successful careers, will they touch other lives? How far does a small act of kindness go? Like a ripple of the ocean, Hilde’s contribution goes out and out and out. It all comes from this woman who, in spite of everything, believed that people are really good at heart.