I was greatly inspired by meeting Maruge, who sadly died of cancer just a few weeks before shooting started. It was his spirit, the spirit of a fighter, that I have tried to infuse in the film. Maruge refused to be old. At our last meeting, when he was very sick, he wanted to go for a walk. So, we helped him up—he was as light as a feather, but you could feel the strength inside him. He had this real power, and he walked a few steps, and he went to the front gate, and he called to them: “Open the gate.” He just took off down the road! We were in the middle of Nairobi, and there were goats and trucks everywhere. All the nurses started chasing him with a wheelchair, and he was hacking it down the street batting them off with his stick. …
I decided it would be much better to visit a real school and cast a whole classroom of kids en masse. I felt that we should mold the script to the school we had found, involving everyone, if they wanted. In the end, we found a wonderful location in the Rift Valley in the mountains. It, like many of our experiences filming, was very unexpected, not how you imagine Africa to be. It was freezing cold and barren with a constantly changing harsh climate—a good hour-and-a-half away from the city—and these were country children, beautiful Maasi and Kikuyi children who would wake up in the morning, do an hour’s work, then walk five or six miles to school—and emerge from this plain in the Rift Valley, which was almost like a desert, at this school.
Having my own kids, I decided the best approach was just to gradually make our presence felt at the school. I just sat there, and let the children come to me, and observed what they were like, how they related to each other, played together and integrated. I learned a great deal from these wonderful children. We didn’t want any performing, no acting. It was my job to catch their natural openness. They had an incredible thirst for knowledge and a real love and value of education.
I grew up in the northwest of England, and if it wasn’t for one good teacher, I would never have gone to the local theater at age 11. That teacher changed my life. Education is the most important thing to me. I know it’s an obvious thing to say, but all you need as a child is one inspiring teacher to cross your path and it can open up an entire world.