Taking Altruism at Its Word in A Small Act


Director Jennifer Arnold seeks to uplift rather than interrogate her subjects in A Small Act, a new documentary that follows the work of Kenyan philanthropist Chris Mburu. Himself the beneficiary of philanthropy—he received financial aid as a child from Hilde Back, a Swedish Holocaust survivor turned patron, and attended Harvard on a Fulbright scholarship—Mburu is on a mission to provide education for a new generation of Kenyan kids. But only some of them. Why his organization places such singular importance on one standardized test, which determines who can progress to secondary school—and who gets his money—goes unexamined. Of course, he can’t help everyone, but Arnold never pushes him to explain his criteria. Nor does she ask him where his foundation’s money comes from, or even simply why giving a lot of help to one or two kids is preferable to giving a little aid to an entire community of children. Arnold just expects her audience to accept that Mburu’s doing the best he can and revere him for it.