As an impoverished youth in Kenya, Harvard Law alum Chris Mburu LL.M.’93 was threatened with expulsion from his primary school because he couldn’t afford the fees. A woman named Hilde Back decided to help, and wrote a check for $15 dollars to sponsor the Kenyan student for one term. Little did she know just how much Mburu’s life would be changed. Decades later, the two of them are the subjects of a new documentary, “A Small Act,” which chronicles Mburu’s search for Back as he embarks on a mission to reciprocate her philanthropy with a scholarship fund of his own.

Coolidge Corner Theater, in partnership with the Nantucket Film Festival and Facing History and Ourselves, will present “A Small Act” on Thursday, March 18 at 7 pm (trailer below). Following the screening there will be a panel discussion with Mburu, who will speak about his life experiences.

As a child, Mburu was able to pull through primary school only by virtue of Back’s generosity; he graduated from the University of Nairobi in 1990, and from Harvard Law School in 1993. Today, he is a human rights lawyer for the United Nations, involved in fighting genocide and crimes against humanity, and he’s started his own fund named after the woman who, unknowingly, turned his life around.

The film traces Mburu’s first meeting with Back: he, a respected lawyer and international representative; she, a German-Jew who was sent to Sweden as a child and lost her family to the Holocaust.

View the trailer:

Mburu’s fund, The Hilde Back Education Fund, started as a small venture in 2001, with Kenyan board members who funded most of the scholarships themselves. Today it is a grass-roots organization; Mburu is at the helm and solicits donations with his cousin, Jane Wanjiru Muigai, also an Harvard Law alum (’96).

Mburu hopes that his attempt to thank Back will have exponential repercussions. The first crop of student beneficiaries of the fund are currently in university. In the film’s trailer, he says: “Once you have a society that is ignorant, it becomes a breeding ground for violence; it becomes a breeding ground for intolerance. …

You can’t change the entire world, so sometimes it’s just as good to help one child.”

Thursday’s event follows a series of sold-out screenings at the Sundance Film Festival, where audiences—which reportedly included financial magnate Bill Gates—awarded the film standing ovations and immediate donations to Mburu’s fund.

The film was directed by Jennifer Arnold and has been selected by HBO Documentary Films to air in the near future. Shot in Västerås, Sweden; in Geneva, Switzerland; and in the central highlands of Kenya, it was filmed with only a handheld Panasonic camcorder.

The Coolidge Corner Theatre is located at 290 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA. Screening is on Thursday, March 18, 2010, 7-9 pm; Tickets are $15 regular / $12 for seniors, students, and Coolidge members.