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Film chronicles how 'A Small Act' changed lives

By Gabriella Casanas, CNN
(L-R) Producer Jeffrey Soros; director/producer Jennifer Arnold; Lana Iny of HBO; and U.N. Acting Coordinator of the Anti-Discrimination Section Chris Mburu attend the film's screening in New York on July 8.
(L-R) Producer Jeffrey Soros; director/producer Jennifer Arnold; Lana Iny of HBO; and U.N. Acting Coordinator of the Anti-Discrimination Section Chris Mburu attend the film's screening in New York on July 8.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A woman in Sweden sent money to a children's charity in Africa
  • Young student Chris Mburu was helped by the woman's contributions
  • He eventually graduated from Harvard Law School and now works for the U.N.
  • Mburu met the woman whose "small act" changed his life; their story is now a documentary

New York (CNN) -- Ever see those late night ads on TV searching for money to support children in Africa?

A woman in Sweden started sending money to a children's charity in Africa and little did she know that because of her small payments a Kenyan youth she had never met would up going to Harvard Law School. The story, as depicted in a new emotion-packed HBO documentary, doesn't end there.

The film "A Small Act" tells the story of Chris Mburu, who grew up in poverty in Africa. Today, he is the acting coordinator of the anti-discrimination section of the United Nations Human Rights Agency based in Switzerland.

Mburu's benefactor, Hilde Back, was a Swedish pre-school teacher and a Holocaust survivor who fled Germany when she was only a child.

"If you do something good, it can spread in circles, like rings on the water," Back said.

As an adult, Mburu went on a search to find Hilde Back, and when he did, he brought her to Kenya so she could see first-hand how far her small act went.

Mburu paid tribute to his benefactor by establishing the Hilde Back Education Fund in 2003 before he had even met her in person. The organization offers financial support to children of Kenya who have distinguished themselves academically.

If you do something good, it can spread in circles, like rings on the water.
--Chris Mburu's benefactor, Hilde Back
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After some viewers saw "A Small Act" at the Sundance Film Festival screening, donations quickly soared. One anonymous donor in London gave $250,000 to support the fund.

As a child, Mburu didn't have much hope for a life beyond coffee-picking in Kenya, where families make only $1.50 a day for their labor. In his homeland, secondary school can cost around $10 a week to attend, but with the limited family income it is impossible for most to afford without help. He got help after Back contributed to a now-defunct fund called Sponsorship for Kenyan Children.

And now Mburu is returning his help with his fund named for Back.

"I would like to see these kids to be educated, because once you have a society that is very, very ignorant, it becomes the breeding ground for violence, for misinformation, for intolerance," Mburu said in the film.

The treatment for violence and ignorance begins with education, and that calls on people to make contributions, regardless of how big or small they are, Mburu said at a panel discussion at the HBO screening in New York.

The lives of the Kenyan youth and the Swedish benefactor have parallels. Mburu works helping those whose human rights are threatened. Back escaped Nazi Germany, but her parents died in concentration camps. Mburu was forced to return to his native Kenya when violence erupted after a presidential election a couple of years ago. Back watched the crisis on TV and spoke to him by phone, concerned about a man she treats like a son she never had.

The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon introduced the film at the HBO screening. Ban reflected on the power of the film industry and how many people it is able to reach.

"From day one I have told my staff to reach out to creative people. Creative (people) can reach many and transcend borders," Ban said.

Ban spoke of the importance of making documentaries like "A Small Act." Spreading awareness and understanding is critical because that's how partnerships are created, he said.

Ban said he wasn't acquainted with Mburu personally but congratulated him by saying he was a symbol of hope for people in many countries, and "messages can be spread by a powerful voice," Ban said.

The documentary also follows the lives of three hard-working and distinguished Kenyan students who compete academically with one another with the hope that they will be awarded a scholarship and attend secondary school.

The students must attain a certain score on a nationwide achievement test to be considered for a scholarship, and their families are supportive but also put a great deal of pressure on their children to do well.

"I began making this film to tell a riveting, character-based story that I hoped would inspire audiences to do their own 'small acts,'" director Jennifer Arnold said. "There are huge stakes for these kids, who are literally fighting for their lives by competing for a scholarship... These kids may one day impact people across the world as Chris Mburu has, and Hilde Back before him."

The documentary is now appearing on HBO. The film company is promoting a new campaign, "What's your small act?" designed to increase donations to charity or help more children in Kenya.

 
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