One day in the mid 1970s, a pre-school teacher living in Sweden named Hilde Back decided to sponsor an African student. Hilde, a Holocaust survivor whose parents were killed in the camps, lived modestly as a refugee in the safe haven of Sweden. Every month she put a few dollars in an envelope and sent it to a Kenyan boy named Chris Mburu. This was enough to get Chris through school. (In Kenya, at the time Chris was in school, students had to pay for their primary and secondary school education. Today, primary is free in Kenya, but secondary still costs.) Chris was inspired by his mysterious benefactor who lived so far away. Not only did he become a star student, he moved on from his village to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School. He became a United Nations human rights advocate, a post he holds today.
One small act -- a couple of bucks -- changed his life. But it gets better. Chris decided to honor the benefactor he had never met. He established the Hilde Back Education Fund to sponsor more Kenyan students, to improve more young lives. Eventually, he tracked down the 80-year-old Back and brought her to Africa to see the results of her generosity.
It sounds a little like fiction, but this is the true story told in A Small Act, a documentary directed by Jennifer Arnold. Jennifer attended the University of Nairobi with Chris's cousin, and experienced firsthand what Kenya was like. She wanted others to have the experience of a prosperous Kenya with a sizable middle class. She set out to make a film about that and discovered even more.
"My mom was Peace Corps. I come from a long tradition in my family of, 'just do what you can to help other people.' We all believe in that in my family. Small actions totally make a difference." - Jennifer Arnold
Her film was initially intended to simply show a balanced view of Africa. Along the way, she discovered Chris and Hilde. As their story unfolded before her lens, Jennifer filmed in villages without electricity, using only battery power for the camera, and sometimes couldn't understand what was being said. (She speaks some Swahili, but many of the people she filmed spoke Kikiuyu.)
A Small Act was accepted at Sundance, and while it screened there with Chris and Hilde in attendance, Jennifer tells this remarkable story: "At Sundance, audience members started handing Chris and Hilde and us checks and cash. They were all donations to the fund. They donated $90,000 over the course of 10 days at Sundance. Then a philanthropist who saw the film just donated a quarter million dollars, just based off seeing the film," she told me.
What the film has taught her is this simple truth: If you feel like you can make a positive change once, you will do it again.
A Small Act premieres on HBO at 9 p.m. ET, July 12. Working with Jennifer, HBO is launching a campaign called "What's Your Small Act?" and as part of it, the network has partnered with a website called Network For Good. At selected screenings of A Small Act viewers will receive a $10 gift certificate that they can use to donate to the charity of their choice.
If you want to know more about the Hilde Back Education Fund, click here.
A SMALL ACT Trailer 2010 from Jennifer Arnold on Vimeo.
Acknowledgments: Chris Mburu and Hilde Back photo courtesy Harvard Law School. Jennifer Arnold portrait by Lee Schneider. A Small Act trailer courtesy Jennifer Arnold via Vimeo.