A children’s (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. So seeing an Africa United poster splashed on the side of a London double-decker bus was very refreshing to see.
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 and, 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 recognise at various stages that they might fail on their mission, and yet tenacious enough to see it through despite the odds stacked against them.
A kids’ road movie that spans seven countries, the synopsis reads:
On the surface, youngsters Dudu and Fabrice are an unlikely couple of friends. Both live in Rwanda and love football, but Fabrice comes from a privileged background and is destined for great things, whereas Dudu lives on the streets hustling to make a living. When a FIFA rep recognises Fabrice's football skills, he invites him to the city to take part in trials for Africa United, linking in with the World Cup in South Africa. Dudu's poor planning lands them in Congo, where they are threatened with a bleak future within the child army. A daring escape is followed by a new plan: a 3,000 mile trip to the Finals themselves, a journey that - if successful - will take them through seven countries and assorted dangers en route. It's easy to understand why comparisons have been made with Slumdog Millionaire, in that Africa United has an uplifting story and isn't afraid of depicting hardship as much as it revels in an infectious sense of fun and joy. Either way, this is an opportunity to see Africa in a different light than we are used to, and is a beautifully made picture that is destined to become a classic in its own right for its brave, honest and humane sensibility that comes straight from the heart.
“Destined to become a classic” might be exaggerating the case somewhat, but it is certainly a likeable 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-conscious knowingness 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 films 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, which 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 moralising 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 your vuvuzela.
A pleasant surprise, and one of my favourite 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.