Although its title and feel-good conclusion mark A Small Act as a celebration of the power of charity, Jennifer Arnold’s documentary is more concerned with—and more compelling as—an on-the-scene look at the challenges facing the Kenyan educational system. The principal difficulty for students in the farming village where the film takes place is, not surprisingly, a lack of funds. In a region where families live in mud huts, kids have to study by candlelight, and women routinely have their first child at 15, even the best pupils can rarely afford to continue their education beyond the primary school level, given their inability to pay the small tuition fee. Such was the case with Chris Mburu, until a child sponsor program prompted an elderly Swedish Holocaust survivor, Hilde Back, to pay his way through school, sparking a career that eventually sent the Kenyan to Harvard Law School and earned him a job in the UN Human Rights bureau in Geneva, where he fights the type of genocide that claimed Hilde’s parents’ lives.
Arnold makes much of both Hilde’s generosity and Chris’s own efforts to give back to the community by sponsoring a scholarship fund for his native region’s top students. There’s little doubt that both people’s selfless acts are worthy of commendation, but when we see the two meeting for the first time decades after Hilde’s donation, and Chris rhapsodizes about the elder woman’s generosity for donating a meager sum that many years ago, it’s both perfectly understandable on the Kenyan’s part and unnecessarily exaggerated to the point that a small act is framed as a near Nobel-worthy gesture of selflessness. But that’s precisely the director’s point: giving multiplies—in this case by Chris’s establishment of the appropriately named Hilde Back fund, which offers 8-10 Kenyan children a year the chance to continue their education.
Still, while Chris’s mission is no doubt worthy, and while he makes an excellent case for the importance of education by citing the ignorance and gullibility that fueled the sort of ethnic cleansing he’s seen in places like Rwanda and, as the film develops, that begins to overtake his own nation, it’s riddled with its own set of problems. The “hook” for American audiences is that these problems are remarkably similar to the challenges facing the U.S. education system and detailed in recent films like Waiting for Superman. Because only a small number of students can qualify for the scholarship, they undergo an immense amount of pressure to secure one of the select spots that are based largely on the students’ performance on the national test, the KCPE. As we follow three hopefuls as they prepare for, take, and await the results of the exam, we understand the immense stakes riding on these preteens’ performances, which amounts to the difference between a middle-class existence and a lifetime of crippling poverty.
To be fair, Chris’s modest organization can only afford to help a limited number of students each year and, as revealed in a fascinating deliberation among the selection committee, the fund’s board weighs such factors as test scores versus classroom performance and the possibility of allotting a certain amount of spots for girls, who have a difficult time achieving educational parity with their male peers, but the ruthlessness of the process is inherent in its nature. Striking a fascinating parallel with the United States’s misplaced mania for charter schools and their limited enrollments, and such legislation as the No Child Left Behind Act that forces educators to “teach to the test,” scrapping critical thinking in favor of rote preparation for standardized exams, A Small Act is ultimately less about the triumphs of educational aid than the abyss faced by those children left very much behind. We learn in a final title that the film’s producers agreed to pay for the education of the profiled students who didn’t qualify for Chris’s scholarship. As Arnold’s doc makes sickeningly clear, the vast majority of impoverished Kenyan children are not so lucky.