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Africa United – Debs Gardner-Paterson interview

Africa United

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DIRECTOR Debs Gardner-Paterson talks about some of the challenges of making Africa United, its comparisons to Slumdog Millionaire and balancing some of the film’s more challenging material – such as Aids, the sex trade and child soldiers – with family friendly values. She was talking at a press conference held during the 54th BFI London Film Festival.

Q. How did this project come about?
Debs Gardner-Paterson: The genesis of the project was that in January 2009, Eric Kabera, one of our producers, approached me and said they had an idea about a film where some kids walked from Rwanda to the South African World Cup and all four of us here in the UK were immediately sold and thought there was the potential for a different kind of African film… something that captured the spirit of the moment as well as a family film that dealt with Africa in a different way. Twenty months later, here we are… it’s been an epically quick process.

Q. How was casting?
Debs Gardner-Paterson: We cast in London, South Africa (Johannesburg and Capetown), Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda. So, we looked really, really hard for these kids. We got the go-ahead to start with casting in September last year and were due to start filming in February. We found Sherrie Silver in the very first audition in London. The embassy put a notice out saying that if you were a Rwandan kid around this age and wanted to act then come along to this audition, and Sherrie came to the first one. So, we found our Celeste. Eriya Ndayambaje, Sanyu Joanita Kintu and Yves Dusenge we found in Uganda, even though Yves was Rwandan, and Roger Nsengiyuma we found right at the very last minute!

We couldn’t find our Fabrice and we were getting closer and closer to production and then at Christmas one of our producers was on holiday with his in-laws and read a newspaper clipping about this Rwandan kid who was living in Norwich and trying out for Norwich FC. So, I got on the train on Boxing Day and went to meet him. His mum thought it was a hoax at first, I think.

Q. Have you had any feedback from Fifa so far?
Debs Gardner-Paterson: We have had feedback from Fifa. Obviously, a big part of doing this film was getting their blessing to have the kids go to the World Cup in the first place. Somebody from Fifa visited the set when we were shooting and they really love it. They’re writing it up in the Fifa magazine and we were able to shoot at Soccer City and all the rest. So, it was great to get their support in that way.

Q. How much of a challenge was it to strike a balance between some of the more difficult issues while keeping it family friendly?
Debs Gardner-Paterson: Yeah, it really was a balance because we wanted to tell a different kind of African story and wanted to touch upon issues but in a family friendly way, so getting the balance – because you’re not supposed to do it – was a tricky one. We went around different stuff and played it overly heavy sometimes in preparing to try and get the balance right. On an audience level, it feels like it’s touching some stuff that people are enjoying. I also hope that it’s touching things that people can relate to and want to engage with.

My belief is that kids are incredibly emotionally intelligent and have a very big understanding of what’s going on in the world and are aware of things, and rather than avoid them and move them over to one side, I’d much rather be able to engage on a heart level as well as on a head level. So, it was always our intention to do that.

Africa United

Q. How did you go about picking which topics to tackle?
Debs Gardner-Paterson: Well, again, it was a difficult balance because we figured that we can’t tell a story about Africa that ignores some of the facts of life about being a kid among some of the poorer aspects of society. But we definitely didn’t want to just be ticking off each issue. I think Rhidian [Brook, writer] did a really lovely job of making the elements of each character’s life intrinsic to their story, their position and their character. So, it happens that they come from different backgrounds and are associated with different issues. But they’re pretty much all inspired by real life.

To develop the script, Rhidian, myself and Bernie [Gardner, our composer], got in a car and did the journey. So, we drove Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, Tanzania and then Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. So, we did workshops with the script and discussed story ideas with ex-street kids and ex-sex workers in Burundi, which is how Celeste was inspired. One of those girls literally had royal blood, but she’d been involved in the sex trade, so that was where she came from. Beatrice was inspired by another little girl in Burundi… an amazing little girl who had been badly abused but was so smart… so smart! So, the road trip and the people that we met on it massively inspired the elements that tend to create this fairytale story.

Also, the guy who plays Tulu in the film, Emmanuel Jal, was a child soldier himself in Sudan, so when the script was being put together, I spent a lot of time with Emmanuel talking about where he would have come from, and how we could make the character of Foreman George more real. So, when Yves got the part, he read Emmanuel’s book and was able to spend some time with him during rehearsals to try and get into that mindset. And obviously, there are a lot of children affected by Aids in their lives.

Q. Have you had the opportunity to screen the film in any of the nations that you filmed in? Or is that a plan?
Debs Gardner-Paterson: It’s definitely a plan and Fifa are actually talking about co-sponsoring a proper Rwandan premiere because they’re going to open a sports centre around the same time. It was going to run in parallel with the premiere here, but then we thought that would be crap because we couldn’t go and enjoy it [laughs]! One of our producers, Eric Kabera, is Mr Ugandan cinema and one of the things that they do is the Rwandan Film Festival and they take an inflatable screen into rural communities. I’ve done it once before with a previous short and you get thousands of people coming out to take part and watch on this 80ft inflatable screen with a sound speaker off the back of a truck. I hope we’ll be able to do that because it’ll be really fun. It should also get a South African release. But it was definitely a priority to ensure that the film played to African audiences as well as western audiences.

Africa United

Q. How supportive were the African people in the nations you filmed in?
Debs Gardner-Paterson: The Rwandan government massively embraced it. Rwanda set up the Rwandan Film Commission in order that we could be an official UK-South Africa and Rwanda co-production. And because it was an official co-production with those three countries it meant that we could also film in Burundi, which was a real priority not to just be filming in South Africa. It would have been an awful lot easier, especially realising this in retrospect, but it felt like we had to go and film in Rwanda and we wanted to film in Burundi because it’s so spectacular and beautiful.

But then you throw into the mix that Burundi, according to some indexes, is the second poorest country in the world and hasn’t had a film made there before, it was a bit mental. But it’s beyond beautiful and nobody’s even heard of it a lot of the time, so it was worth the pain. So, we had a huge amount of support. Our crew was predominantly from South Africa as well, and they were brilliant, and about half those guys came with us when we moved up north to Rwanda and Burundi.

Q. What do you think of the fact that people are comparing Africa United to Slumdog Millionaire?
Debs Gardner-Paterson: It’s a tricky one… it’s obviously massively flattering because Slumdog is an amazing film. But it’s a very different film as well. It’s a very different audience, it exists in a different space, so I’m kind of excited and have a bit of trepidation about that comparison.

Q. Do you feel like you’ve made a fairytale?
Debs Gardner-Paterson: I do feel there’s something of a fairytale about it. I hope so. In the way that great movies are that kind of thing… they follow a similar kind of structure to the epic quest in a way. Ultimately, we wanted to make a film about friendship and about universal characters in a different world than we’ve seen before, so I think the fairytale element applies, the road movie structure applies, and hopefully in a new way that you haven’t sort of scene before.

Read our review of Africa United

Read our interview with the young stars of the film