Santa Barbara High graduate Jennifer Arnold’s latest documentary, A Small Act, is anything but. It took two-and-a-half years to make and required trips to Sweden, Switzerland, and Kenya amid violence, all in a quest to tell the story of how Hilde Back escaped Nazi Germany and funded a young African’s education, only to have that student, Chris Mburu, graduate from Harvard and then start his own scholarship program named in Back’s honor.
The film screens multiple times on HBO this month, and Arnold — who has degrees in African history from UCLA and the University of Nairobi as well as a Masters of Fine Arts in filmmaking from UCLA — will come to town for a special screening on August 28 hosted by the Carpinteria Valley Arts Council. We recently caught up with the filmmaker to talk about her latest project and, of course, Santa Barbara.
What is the overall message of the film?
We thought this shouldn’t be a film about sponsoring kids in Africa; this should be a film about small acts making a big difference. The average person has the power to make change just by doing something small.
What were some obstacles you encountered while filming in Kenya?
We were tear gassed during the shoot. We weren’t expecting violence to break out….When the violence got worse and became ethnic in origin, we realized it really paralleled a lot of Hilde’s story, a lot of Chris’s work, then it really affected the scholarship selection process. We knew we had to get some footage of that.
It sounded like it added an element to the story you didn’t anticipate.
This element of violence of Kenya, we never ever anticipated it. It ended up giving the film a nice dimension, but it was awful. As someone who loves Kenya, I’d never wish that on Kenya but it gave the film a lot of richness and it gave it one more layer.
What has the feedback been?
There has been an incredible response. We never ever thought that something like this would happen. When we premiered at Sundance, an audience member stood up and wrote a check for $5,000 and another audience member matched that. And by the next screening people were handing twenties and hundreds, checks for thousands of dollars. Over the course of the 10 days, $90,000 was donated to Chris’s fund. We couldn’t believe it. Also, Bill Gates saw the film and waited in line to meet all of us. It was an unbelievable experience at Sundance.
Did you always know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Yes, my mom likes to tell stories of me in grade school gathering up all the neighborhood kids and forcing them to do magic shows for their parents. I was a director from the start.
Do you still live in Santa Barbara?
I live in Los Angeles, but my dad lives in Carpinteria and my mom still lives in Santa Barbara and I’m still in touch with all my friends in Santa Barbara. In fact, Rick Mokler, who was my Santa Barbara drama teacher but went to run the drama department at City College, just retired and I came home to Sheffield Park for his retirement party. I’m still definitely very tied to the Santa Barbara community.
Where do you visit when you come home?
I love Brophy Brothers and I like to go down to the beach. I don’t always spend the day at the beach but I always try to go with either my mom or my dad to have breakfast down at the beach.
How have your Santa Barbara roots influenced your filmmaking?
I really got my first experience working with actors at Santa Barbara High School. There was a really small theater program and it was headed up by Rick Mokler. I learned about directing actors and putting together a good story. You still have to use basic story structure to make a story moving. I started to develop these skills in high school so I’m very appreciative of my education there.
HBO will air A Small Act on July 12 at 9 p.m., and again a number of times throughout the month. Jennifer Arnold will also attend an outdoor screening on August 28 sponsored by the Carpinteria Valley Arts Council. See asmallact.com and artscarp.org.