a sensational new film about a gang of five African children who set out to walk thousands of miles to the World Cup venues of South Africa not only projects a different version of Africa but has it has kick-started the birth of a film industry in Rwanda. Alexa Dalby has the details.

The film Africa United premiered in Canada at the Toronto Film Festival and in the UK at the BFI London Film Festival to great acclaim, and its Rwandan VIP premiere in November was followed by a free screening for more than 8,000 people in Kigali’s Amahoro National Stadium.

The adventures of five children who refuse to believe they cannot achieve their goal, no matter how impossible adults think it is–that is just the sort of story line that you would expect to find in a family movie, you might think. But the production of the mainstream movie Africa United became the inspiration for another ambitious achievement–the setting up of a permanent body, the Rwandan Film Commission, to promote filmmaking in the country that inspired the film’s story.

Garlanded with comparisons to the international award-winning Slumdog Millionaire–shot in Mumbai, India–Africa United is a feel-good film that does not shy away from difficult issues, though these are presented in a way that makes them acceptable to young audiences. It makes you laugh and cry as its central characters, who embody different issues facing African children, trek 3,000 miles by truck, boat and foot, to reach South Africa for the junior football trials of the Fifa World Cup, and its closing scenes unroll amid the excitement of Soweto’s Soccer City Stadium.

Starting their journey from Kigali, Rwanda, are 15-year-old Fabrice (played by UK-based Rwandan emigre Roger Nsengiyumva), the child of middle-class parents who want him to be a doctor, whose football talent sparks their naive quest; precocious fast-talking 12-year-old Dudu (Eriya Ndayambaje, a Twa from the Rwandan/Ugandan border), Fabrice’s self-appointed ‘business manager’ and the film’s narrator; and his studious sister Beatrice (Ugandan Sanyu Joanita Kintu). Dudu and Beatrice are street children and orphans, with lives affected by HIV/Aids.

After taking the wrong bus and ending up in DR Congo, they decide to make their own way to South Africa. They cross seven countries and are joined in the dangers they face by Foreman George, an escaped child soldier (played by Yves Dusenge, a Rwandan living in Uganda), and Celeste (played by Sherrie Silver, daughter of Rwandan emigre parents living in London), a young bargirl and un-willing prostitute. The film’s emphasis is on overcoming obstacles by supporting each other by working together. As Dudu says, “Africa doesn’t need armies, it needs teams.”

Film school in Rwanda

The idea originated with producer Eric Kabera, known as Rwanda’s ‘Mr Cinema’. He told me: “This is a story of an aspiring continent through the eyes of its children. We have managed to bring to the world a piece of work that has captured the imagination of anyone who has not yet come to a place such as Rwanda, Burundi or anywhere on the continent. Africa United makes you go to those places and wish for the best for a continent that has been terribly portrayed in the media. This is a love letter from Africa to you.”

Kabera started as a journalist and trained in the media in the UK and US. “My stepping stone into the world of motion pictures was the making of 100 Days [about the genocide], when I teamed up with British-based filmmaker and cameraman Nick Hughes,” he recounts. “After touring the film around the world, in Africa, Asia, America and Europe, I really came to realize the power of film and how much this is needed, especially in the developing world, such as Africa and Rwanda. I would see documentaries and films about Rwanda and none of my citizens would ever get the time to watch them or even aspire to be involved into the field of filmmaking.”

Those experiences inspired him to create the Rwanda Cinema Centre, of which he is the chief executive, an established and recognized film school based in Rwanda. It has received the acclaim of award-winning filmmakers from Hollywood, Europe, Africa and Asia, who come to teach master classes to students and aspiring filmmakers.

“The greatest achievement of the Rwanda Cinema Centre is the fact that is a very underfunded organization of young people who believe in what they are doing and the impact it has on their society,” he says. “We have managed to train over 200 young men and women whom we have also inspired and encouraged to embrace the industry and the art of filmmaking while unleashing their potential. These are scriptwriters, producers, directors, cameramen and women as well as editors. We are funded through friends and organizations, and support from the Ministry of Sports and Culture.”

Kabera is a founder member of the East African Filmmakers Forum and he sits on the board of advisors for Maisha Film Labs, working to establish a film industry in East Africa, with Spike Lee and Sofia Coppola.

The genesis of the Africa United project came when he presented the idea of a road movie of “some kids walking to the World Cup” to the film’s director, Debs Gardner-Paterson, a fourth-generation Rwandan who he had worked with on her short film We Are All Rwandans. Africa United is Gardner-Paterson’s first feature film. She said: “We wanted to make different kind of African film, one that captured the spirit of the moment as well one that dealt with Africa in a different way. That was how it started—2 years later, here we are. It was epic and quick!”

Although it is a fairy-tale story, all the children’s characters were based on real life. She continued: “We got in a car and did the same journey as in the film. We work-shopped the story ideas with ex-street kids and with ex-sex workers in Burundi, which was the inspiration for ‘Celeste’–one of the girls we developed the script with literally had royal blood. ‘Beatrice’ was inspired by another little girl in Burundi, an amazing little girl who had been badly abused, but was so smart.” Former Sudanese child soldier Emmanuel Jal, now an internationally known rapper, advised on Foreman George’s character and also plays a villain in the film.

Filmed on location

Kabera wanted to make a feature film that showed Rwanda and the Great Lakes region in a new light and reflected the growing peace and stability there. Shot on location in Rwanda, Burundi and South Africa, it is the first ever Rwanda-UK coproduction (the other coproduction partner being South Africa). The crew was largely made up of South Africans, Rwandans and Burundians. It is the inaugural project of the new Rwanda Film Commission, and had a budget of $6m, with half coming from the distributors, Pathe, and $768,000 from Rwanda’s Ministry of Youth, Culture and Sports. Kabera told me that the Commission was “needed to make sure that more films get made under a framework that benefits the country and the people of Rwanda by having more stories told using film. There is a huge interest in having many films shot in Rwanda, it provides a platform for training and also a contribution to the local industry in the various forms of business, hotels, catering, transportation, and so on.”

Kabera is proud of “the Rwanda Film Festival, an international film festival which I founded [now in its seventh year], runs for two weeks every year, and is so unique in its organic form”.

He explains that he takes movies in the remote areas of our country and shows films [on inflatable screens] to an audience that has very limited access to films, TV and any form of entertainment and visual education. “Most films shown in the hills are mainly those made by our students, in the local language,” he said. “We also show some ‘cinematic language’ ones, such as those of Charlie Chaplin and others that do not need translation.

“After the week spent in the hills of Rwanda, where the name Hillywood [the Rwandan Hollywood] comes from, we take on Kigali, where we have some films shown to our middle classes and the NGO community. We also run special programmes where we screen films on human rights abuse, genocide and the holocaust, on women–and also made by women–and on children,” he says.

“After its historical tragic events, cinema and the language of film can transform this society in a very dramatic way,” he emphasises. “As we have seen in other parts of the world, cinema is not only a form of literacy but is also a strong component to understanding a people and its culture. We are glad that Rwandans are so keen on this move, and the government of Rwanda is supportive and so receptive to this call. Once someone has the capacity of looking at their past, present and future in perspective, he or she can draw a plan for a clearer future, and film gives you this incredible ability of doing so.”

Future plans include launching the KWETU Film Institute, which will be run as an international film school teaching media literacy, arts and culture, with a strong emphasis on film. This institution will be open for all students from East Africa, the Great Lakes region especially, Congo and Burundi. “We are looking for educational institutions that may be involved in partnership with the Rwanda Film Institute and also we need to have the people and institutions that are interested in this move. We expect mutual benefit from any country or individual to get this done for the community.”

Africa United has just started to roll out its international distribution. There is a tie-in with the Comic Relief organisation in the UK, which campaigns and raises large sums of money for projects to fight poverty, and in a unique agreement, 25% of the film’s net profits, with a minimum guarantee of [pounds sterling]25,000, ($40,000) will go to that charity.

As part of the global awareness campaign to ensure that development issues stay on the agenda, Comic Relief has started a new project, See Africa Differently, with the involvement of one of Comic Relief’s co-founders, filmmaker Richard Curtis (of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame, among many other internationally successful films). Its website www.seeafricadifferently.com is a showcase and library of positive information and films about Africa.

“Its inspiration came from the need to counter negative perceptions around Africa and also around aid,” spokesperson Kate Wills told me. “The plans are for it to stay an information resource primarily. We hope to encourage a wide range of people from the UK and throughout Africa to contribute their stories, films, etc to telling the story of how important it is to See Africa Differently.”

Kabera too is eager to see a different sort of picture of Africa to the negative reflections in the media: “That was my original idea with Africa United–to take a different view that was not a stereotype. The director and producers got it right.”

Africa United is directed by Debs Gardner-Paterson, www.africaunitedmovie.com


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