'A Small Act' draws big ovation at Ebertfest

CHAMPAIGN — Roger Ebert was right on: His Ebertfest audience on Saturday gave Hilde Back and the documentary "A Small Act" a standing ovation, the first of his 13th annual film festival at the Virginia Theatre.

The second came for another tear-jerker, "Life, Above All," a feature film sent in a South African township that was showing after "Small Act."

Announcing his festival lineup a few weeks ago, Ebert predicted that Back, a Holocaust survivor now in her late 80s — and not the Hollywood stars at his festival — would receive a standing ovation.

A subject of "A Small Act," Back, who immigrated to Sweden in 1941 from Nazi Germany, supported a boy through primary and secondary school in a small village in central Kenya. She estimated it cost her $16 a month.

The boy, Chris Mburu, later went to Harvard, became a human-rights lawyer and started the Hilde Back Education Fund to help put children through school in his native village.

After the screening of "A Small Act," a rested looking Ebert, who had missed a screening on Friday, walked on stage to hand a bouquet of flowers to Back. He hugged her and then rubbed the top of the diminutive woman's head.

In turn, "A Small Act" writer-director Jennifer Arnold gave the critic a DVD of her documentary, autographed by Back.

Festival-goers also wanted the octogenarian's autograph; among them was a young girl who, at the end of the Q-and-A, told Back, "This movie touched my heart and when I grow up I want to be just like you."

Also during the Q-and-A, a young woman stood and said she had cried like an infant during the screening. Even Bill Gates reportedly cried when he saw the premiere of "A Small Act" at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival; Gates waited in line afterward to greet Back, Arnold said.

In the documentary, Back, a retired pre-school teacher, told the filmmakers she does not like to be in the spotlight and does not consider herself a hero.

On stage at the Virginia, the woman, looking a bit bewildered by all the attention, said a small act such as hers "can do very much."

The documentary "A Small Act" has done very much as well.

During the 10 days of the 2010 Sundance festival, the filmmakers received $90,000 in donations for the Hilde Back Education Fund. Since the documentary was released last year, $750,000 has been raised for the Hilde Back Education Fund. As a result, the fund now sponsors students nationwide in Kenya, rather than just Mburu's village.

The Facebook page for the documentary often receives emails from viewers who say they want to perform small acts themselves, or who describe actions they have taken as a result of seeing the documentary.

And the documentary website (http://asmallact.com/) tells online visitors how they can give to organizations in their own communities or to national and international groups that support causes in which they are interested.

"We were just trying to make a good movie," Arnold said.

The genesis for the documentary was Arnold's having studied for a year at the University of Nairobi, where she roomed next door to Mburu's cousin Jane Wanjiru Muigai, who closely followed Mburu's career path to Harvard and to the United Nations, where both are human rights lawyers.

Arnold and Muigai, who also appears in the documentary and works with the Back Education Fund, stayed in touch over the years.

Several years ago Arnold told her friend she had enough money to sponsor a student in Kenya, and Muigai told her the story of her cousin, how he had started the Back Education Fund and was trying to locate Back, whom he had never met even though she had changed his life.

Arnold saw a good story. Though she had little money to make the documentary, she enlisted her friend, Patti Lee, to be director of photography and to produce the doc.

In 2007 they spent two weeks in Sweden filming Back and three months in Kenya, shooting Back's first meeting there with Mburu. The filmmakers also focused on three good students who were to take the Kenyan national test in hopes of earning high enough marks to win a Back scholarship.

Arnold and Lee earned points with members of the Ebertfest audience who saw, in the credits, that the two women are sponsoring the education of two of their young subjects, both girls.

The initial funds to make the documentary came from Arnold's father and friends; she and Lee edited it in Arnold's garage in Los Angeles. Then HBO Documentary Films provided financing to finish Arnold's first feature-length film.

Arnold and others said they would like to see "A Small Act" shown to students worldwide. It was picked up by Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that provides teachers resources to encourage reflection and dialogue about tolerance and social-justice issues.

And Film Forward, an initiative of the Sundance Institute, included "A Small Act" among 10 U.S. and international films to be showm in the United States and abroad.

On May 13, "A Small Act" will be shown to members of Congress in Washington, D.C.

"Life, Above All," is fictional though it concerns itself with issues facing real-life residents of South African townships. The movie, directed by Oliver Schmitz, is about 12-year-old Chanda, played by Khomotso Manyaka, in her first film role, and how she holds her family together after her baby sister dies. Manyaka, now 15, is traveling the world now to help promote the movie.

Ebertfest continued Saturday evening with screenings of "Leaves of Grass," with writer-director-actor Tim Blake Nelson in person, and "I Am Love," starring Scottish actress Tilda Swinton, also present.

The 13th annual Ebertfest will end today, with a screening at noon of the documentary "Louder Than a Bomb," about Chicago high school students competing in the poetry slam of the same title. The Champaign County Anti-Stigma Alliance will present a free screening of the same documentary at 4 p.m. today, with the filmmakers and young poets onstage afterward.

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