"Africa United" Review: 2011 New York African Film Festival

by Vanessa Martinez
April 21, 2011 10:08 AM
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A children or family film with a largely African cast is rare. African children being depicted as anything other than victims of brutal, famine and poverty stricken environments they’ve been born into are almost non existent.

And while I was cynical about an English director making a film set in Africa and starring African children, it would seem that director Debs Gardner-Paterson (who qualifies for dual British/Rwandan citizenship) did go to great pains to show an Africa that’s more than the limited vision of the continent usually depicted in Western media. While we do have AIDS orphans, a former child soldier and a child sex worker (albeit with royal lineage), the kinds of characters westerners tend to see as normal with regard to Africa, there’s also a middle class African who displays the kinds of values usually associated with even less than privileged children in western society – attachment to the right footwear, anxiety at the lack of a mobile network signal also fit into the mix.

While I wouldn’t say they were all imbued with great depth and complexity, they were certainly depicted as children with vision, eager to take up the call to adventure, human enough to recognize at various stages that they might fail on their mission, and yet tenacious enough to see it through despite the odds stacked against them.

Africa United is certainly a likable film. The cast are enjoyable to watch, though at times it did feel like watching high school drama club enthusiasts living out stage-school veteran dreams. A self-consciousness pervaded the cast, but not so bad that it detracted from the film’s charm. The best performance, in my view, was that of Yves Dusenge who played former child soldier, Foreman George. His withdrawn yet involved performance showed the kind of understated restraint and that made it easy to believe that he might have had a childhood in which he’d seen and done things no child should ever be exposed to.

Despite the film's uplifting and adventurous spirit, however, there was something a little flat about it at times. It has all the right ingredients for a classic children’s film – it has adventure, villains, obstacles a plenty – but there just didn’t seem to be a great sense of excitement, terror, thrill, or even great emotional depth to it, until, perhaps the last third of the film. Cues and plot points were met and ticked off as done as the film progressed, but the obstacles were seemingly easily surmounted, villains easily thwarted and, while we could see the possible dangers, there was still a sense of detachment from it all – no sense of being part of the team, no adrenaline rush – a bit like watching a news feature but with an upbeat message. Or perhaps, not being the targeted demographic, I’m just too old and cynical.

I could have also done with a little less football star references and corporate/team branding (t-shirts, football boots), which got a little tiresome after a while and which, but for the fact that it is being released some months later, made it feel like one long ad for the 2010 South Africa World Cup. And while the film did as much as possible to portray a good image of Africa, its occasional not so subtle didactic public service moralizing about AIDS and safe sex did seem a bit heavy handed and jarring at times, and I almost half expected the cast to turn to smile into the camera and encourage everyone to come on over, have fun, but put a condom on.

A pleasant surprise, and one of my favorite things about the film, was the animated sequences that made up the story told by Dudu as the Africa United team members grew in number and their adventures unfolded. The animated story within the story brought back home the fact that this was a story, about children, African children, and keeping alive their indomitable spirit of hope in the face of adversity.

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