Last September, during my annual trek north for the Toronto International Film Festival, I sat in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel speaking with two excited young producers whose film had premiered at Telluride and was generating very good word of mouth in Canada.
That film, "The First Grader," is the inspiring true story of an 84-year-old Kenyan villager who fights for his right to attend school.
It opens today at the Ritz Five, and its journey to the screen is as labyrinthine as Kimani Ng'ange'a Maruge's journey to learn to read.
It started with the two producers: Richard Harding was born in Sierra Leone and studied film at University of California, Los Angeles. Sam Feuer was born in Israel and came to America to be an actor.
When Feuer was in the Steven Spielberg movie "Munich," he saw an article in the Los Angeles Times about Maruge. He emailed the article to Harding, whom he'd met at the American Film Market and who had been involved in the international financing of "Hotel Rwanda."
Harding's mother, it turns out, was not only African but also a fifth-grade teacher.
"I asked her what she thought," Harding said, "and when she gave her thumbs up, I immediately called Sam and told him we have to do this film."
"We always had a feeling that this movie was special," Feuer said, "because the story was so inspiring and unique."
Inspiring enough that the two men spent five years trying to make it happen.
While they were working, South African screenwriter Ann Peacock ("Nights in Rodanthe," "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe") was also circling around the project and came aboard as screenwriter.
"But before that," Harding said, "we decided to go to Kenya and get the life rights of both the old man and his teacher [Jane, played by Naomie Harris]. They were not even sure what that would mean, and it had to be explained to them. Luckily for us they agreed to sign their life rights, and he was willing to tell his story. He just wanted to educate the world and promote education.
"He was 85 at the time," Feuer added, "and he was very excited. He felt like a celebrity. And he was. He was very cherished among the Kenyan people."
After being turned down by a number of studios in the U.S., the producers looked toward Europe. Upon the recommendation of Peacock, they met with the BBC and its then head, David Thompson.
The BBC said yes in five minutes.
"That was the fastest 'yes' we'd ever gotten in our careers," Harding said. "The 'yes' was so fast that we got on the phone with our attorneys to draw up the contract immediately - before David changed his mind."