In a gloomy world full of socio-political issues, especially in relation to screen portrayals of Africa, it’s refreshing to watch a film that champions the power of positive thought, fuelling the story from beginning to end. It is a vibrant and positively charming journey that captures the true, fighting spirit of Africa, it is an amazing movie.
Africa United from debut director Debs Gardner-Paterson is such an inspiring film as it takes young and old on a vibrant and charming journey through several African states (Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa) to capture the true fighting spirit of Africa.
As the title suggests, it unites all who watch it because of its colourful vitality and infectious childlike awe that kids can relate to and adults can relive and this notion overshadows the football element. It’s like an African Enid Blyton tale, where anything can be achieved and obstacles can be overcome, when you put great young minds together.
That said the serious issues facing the continent are intertwined effectively in this coming-of-age tale, with the opening scene more like an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign than the start of a feature film, designed to grab your attention. The big issues are apparent, or never far from the surface, but are dealt with in a matter-of-fact way that does not render them superficial, or allow them to dampen this tale of considerable hope.
Part of this successful balance that Gardner-Paterson strikes, is due to the film’s magnetic and mega-optimistic, young protagonist, Dudu, played by newcomer Eriya Ndayambaje. Self-styled football manager Dudu sets off with his football prodigy and best pal Fabrice (Roger Nsengiyumva) and his bookish little sister Beatrice (Sanyu Joanita Kintu) to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to audition Fabrice for a part in the 2010 World Cup opening ceremony.
The trouble is they take the wrong bus, resulting in a whistle-stop tour of African states and meeting escaped sex worker Celeste (Sherrie Silver) and former child soldier Foreman George (Yves Dusenge) who decide to join Dudu’s ‘team’ – let’s face it, what more do they have to do? The acting is far from polished, but its rawness merely adds to our empathy with each character’s plight and willingness to support their venture.
The camera simply adores Ndayambaje to the point of the aperture opening several stops whenever his happy, animated face fills the screen, and radiating us with a feeling of sunny warmth. Ironically, when we first set eyes on Dudu, he is instructing his audience (and us) on how to make a football out of an inflated condom, a plastic bag and a ball of string in a delightfully playful, almost ‘stand-up comedic’ fashion that is both highly amusing and frankly alarming because of the African HIV/AIDS pandemic message.
With hindsight, it is difficult to determine the age group that the film is aimed at, but as a documentary piece with its clever little animated parts, it works well to alert youth to the serious health and social topics in an informative manner. At times, it’s like watching an educational video, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it feels like being back at school, even with the fun elements involved.
It may also leave some adults/parents red-faced trying to explain some of the finer points, too, “like what is a sex worker, Mum/Dad?” That said Gardner-Paterson seems unforgiving about this: Kids have to know the world is not an equal or perfect place, right, so let’s ease the pain, without shattering their childhood dreams. Characters Dudu and his team are a metaphor for this, with football acting as the prejudicial stimulus and the salvation.
Whatever the film-makers say about Africa United not being a film about football and the World Cup, you can’t help wondering what kind of greater impact it could have had at the box office, if it had, had its release date around that time? Then, there is pretty much football to be had all year around, so it still works to prolong the thrill of the international sporting event – England’s performance, aside. Football serves as the uniting factor, like a cross-border religion or passport, but not the primary topic, so the film-makers can make claim to the former, it seems.
Africa United is a massive injection of hope, celebrating life and its stubbornness to suppress youthful distractions and dreams in some harsh realities. It’s a decent story, too, rather than just being a socio-political message. But for all its well-meaning intentions, spirit and attractive picture-postcard views of Africa, will it capture the attention and hearts of the average family faced with a programme of other kids’ films at the local pictures?
In playing down the football element and just re-labelling it as an African road movie, this may result in it be overlooked, which is sad, considering youth need as much exposure to positivism as possible today to counterbalance the all the negative aspects.
By Lisa Giles-Keddie