Jennifer Arnold’s A Small Act is a genuinely heartwarming documentary that could be subtitled “Karma.” As a small boy growing up in rural Kenya in the 1970s, Chris Mburu had plenty of brains but few shillings with which to pay for his school fees. Enter his benefactor from Sweden, Hilde Back, whose monthly $15 donations enabled Mburu to not only go on to high school, but to university and ultimately to Harvard on the graduate level, earning a Master’s in human rights law. Mburu went on to work for the United Nations at Geneva, where he continues to combat genocide.
As a recipient of largesse Mburu decided to pay it back, and created a foundation to endow bright but poor Kenyan students, so that they too could continue their schooling. Mburu named the scholarship after the supposed “philanthropist” who had helped him out when he was a lad, and the Hilde Back Education Foundation was born.
Eventually, curiosity got this cat, and Mburu decided to seek out the woman who had made his education a possibility. Eventually, he found Hilde Back, who was indeed still alive and well and living in Sweden. (NOTE to readers: Plot Spoiler:) However, much to Mburu’s amazement, he discovered that far from being a millionaire philanthropis, Hilde was merely a (now retired) school teacher. Furthermore, he learned that Hilde was not Swedish, but rather a German Jew, who escaped the Holocaust by emigrating to Sweden during the 1930s, although her parents perished at Nazi death camps, including at Auschwitz.
This beautiful, moving film goes on to show the eventual meeting(s) of Mburu and his benefactor, who had no idea a charity was named after her. Nor that this Holocaust survivor’s small act of generosity would enable Mburu to play a role in campaigning ethnic cleansing around the world as a U.N. international civil servant, including at his native Kenya.
Kenyan rapper Gleam Joel’s life story is strikingly similar to the one told in A Small Act, a saga we dramatized together in the musical we co-created and recently presented in Switzerland called Still Standing. Gleam, who is creating a an anti-violence movement, was perhaps the only Kenyan at the LAFF screening of A Small Act, and he was visibly touched by its humane message of solidarity.
The philosophy of A Small Act shows how individuals can affect the world, like the ripple effect caused by tossing a pebble into a pond. In keeping with its ethos, audience members were given a $10 gift card to donate to a favorite cause at: www.networkforgood.org/asmallact. This lovely, uplifting, transcendent doc airs July 12 on HBO, and as one of LAFF’s best films, is not to be missed.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”