Hot Docs Review – A Small Act




I‘m pretty sure I just saw the Audience Award winner of Hot Docs 2010. If I was a betting man, I’d plop a nice chunk of change down on A Small Act coming out on top after all the votes have been cast. Sure the Rush documentary has the built-in fan base and is a ton of fun (and it just won the Tribeca Audience Award), but Jennifer Arnold’s latest (a finalist for the Grand Jury Award at Sundance) is warm, triumphant, hopeful and inspiring without ever being the slightest bit mawkish or sappy. It’s basic premise is that anyone can make the world a better place – if not on a grand scale, at least by making a difference to individual people – one small act at a time.

The main through line of the film is the story of three young Africans from a small village in Kenya. They are all smart and have loads of potential, but their families lack the funds necessary to put them into high school. Without some form of assistance, they will likely get sucked into the cycle of poverty so many have before. This is where the Hilde Back Educational Fund comes into play. It has been set up by a former resident of the same village to help those students who show promise, but lack the financial station to pay for their early education. Chris Mburu heads the fund and simply wants to pass along the same type of act of kindness that was provided to him when he was of the same age and couldn’t afford schooling. It came from a middle age Holocaust survivor who had fled to Sweden and was looking to give something back and help someone just like she had been helped after leaving her home country. Her donations (to the tune of about $15 a month) gave Chris the chance to acquire an education. And that he did. After attending Nairobi University, he went to Harvard, became a lawyer and now works at the United Nations as a human rights attorney specializing in areas like genocide. He never forgot that small gesture from a woman he had never met, so he named a new educational fund after her.




Though the current storylines all take place in 2007, the film backtracks a bit to cover the creation and launch of the Hilde Back Educational Fund. Chris invites and meets for the first time his benefactor and it begins a relationship that continues to this day. Hilde is just as sweet and loveable as you would hope her to be and her interview segments are scattered within the rest of the film to complement Chris’ own view of how we can all contribute towards changing injustices and inequalities. As if by design, all these issues and points of view are highlighted and brought into sharp focus when Chris and his board of directors try to make their final decisions as to who will be the recipients of the scholarships – right during the unrest that followed the late 2007 elections in Kenya. Without education, Chris says earlier in the film, people are essentially ripe for exploitation. Given the ethnic violence that erupts, you’d be hard pressed to argue the point with Chris.

Arnold has a sure hand with the pace of the film and never loses sight of the storyline while also juggling these many issues and side trips to Sweden (to see Hilde) and Switzerland (where Chris works at the U.N.). The three children in Kenya (Kimani, Ruth and Caroline) are all studying for the KCPE National tests which run for 3 days and determine whether students are allowed to move along to high school. Those children with the highest scores on the test and valid financial need will be considered for the final 10 spots for the scholarship. Kimani, Ruth and Caroline certainly have the financial need – Caroline’s parents don’t even own land and can barely afford lamp oil for her to study in the evenings. These are lively, intelligent and determined kids whose entire families are essentially depending on them to continue their education. Not everyone can be helped, but Chris wants to at least start somewhere.

The day before my screening of the film there was an article in the Toronto Star about a philanthropist who spent a year donating his time to various agencies. He claims that “fewer than 25 per cent of Canadians with salaries above $80,000 donate to charity”. I don’t know how accurate that stat is or whether it includes non-monetary contributions (time, article donations, etc.), but if that remaining percentage could see this film, perhaps it might inspire them to contribute in some way of their own accord. You can’t help but wonder what even just a few additional small acts might do.



Hot Doc screenings of “A Small Act”:

Wednesday May 5th at 4:15PM – Isabel Bader Theatre
Sunday May 9th at 9:15PM – Bloor Cinema

Bob Turnbull
Critical Thinker At Large


  1. Thank you so much for this terrific write up. I'm so glad you liked the film and I appreciate you taking the time to write about it. We screened the film for students today and the response was phenomenal. Thanks for getting the word out!


    Jennifer (the director)

  2. Great coverage of a wonderful film that gently asks and shows that we can ALL make the world a better place. The story line gives me goosebumps, the film does it honor and justice.

  3. Thank you for stopping by Jennifer! I'd love to hear more about the student screening – one of my first thoughts after the film was over was that I would love to show it at my son's school (he's in Grade 4, so probably for the Grade 4-6 crowd). There's just so many different things they can glean from Chris' story, Hilde's story and the kids in Kenya. I wish the film (and you) every success.

    Thanks for your comment as well Amy. You pretty much summed up my feelings in two lines.

  4. Hi there,

    Sorry it took so long to get back. I don't know if 4th grade is quite old enough to handle the violence section of the film (when Chris discusses Rwanda). But we are making an educational version of the film. It won't be ready for about 8 months, but check in with me either on facebook (A Small Act fan page) or at and we'll make sure your son's school can see it!



  5. Hi Jennifer…True, I suppose that Grade 4 might be a bit early for some of the topics and situations discussed in the film, but we recently watched "The Long Way Down" (Ewan McGregor's motorcycle trip from Scotland to South Africa) with our 9 year old and it openly discussed Rwanda. We had a long talk about it afterwards as he had a lot of questions…I don't think the true horror of it all sunk in, but he certainly had a sense of the injustice ("Wait, so what you're saying is…").

    I suppose that's harder in a classroom situation though.

    I'll check in at the web site on a regular basis to follow the progress of the film. Congrats on making the Top Ten in the Audience Award voting.


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