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Africa from the inside out
popemobile on lambeth bridge
Africa United is a new family feature film that tells the story of three Rwandan children’s impossible dream – to take part in the opening ceremony of the football World Cup. During their 3000-mile journey we discover a very different continent: an inner Africa where, against overwhelming odds, teenagers gleefully boot adversity into touch.
Early screenings of Africa United have received rapturous acclaim. At the Toronto Film Festival last month the film won a standing ovation. Purposely without a "religious" theme, Africa United was conceived, written and directed by Christians for a mainstream audience. "There's a whole side to Africa that is just not being seen," says director Debs Gardner-Paterson (DGP). "There are so many great people, entrepreneurial, clever, joyful. This is their story."

Debs and one of the film's producers, Jackie Sheppard (JS) took time out of a hectic promotional schedule for a kickabout with Ship of Fools.

SOF: Africa United features a cast of children aged 11 to 15 who had never acted professionally before, a writer producing his first script and a director making her first feature film. Do you enjoy impossible tasks?

DGP: It would seem that way, wouldn't it?

JS: Or, as our main character, Dudu would say: "Impossible is nothing."

SOF: Hmmm, but if faith genuinely motivates you, how come your film's funny?

DGP: You don't think God has a sense of humour?

JS: I'm with Debs on this. Why do we have to be serious all the time?

SOF: Because, because... the Bible commands us to redeem the time for the days are evil. So that's all clear, then. Worse still, you've made a film about Africa that entertains rather than induces guilt. Have you no shame?

JS: Well, we've never wanted to bash people over the head. What's the point? Motivating people is better done via stealth...

DGP: We think there are a huge number of people interested in being part of making things healthier in this life – religious or not. Guilt paralyses, whereas humanity, relating to our own or someone else's, is incredibly powerful. Comedy, too, is an effective tool in highlighting social misconceptions.

SOF: All well and good, but we waited and waited – in vain – for the western hero to arrive and save a failed community. What a missed opportunity!

DGP: Hmmm...

SOF: What about this impressive list of names backing the project: Warner Brothers, Pathé Productions, UK Film Council and BBC Films. Er, what did you put in their pipes?

JS: Well, they were either captivated by our enthusiasm, charm, talent and track record or they are just amazing people prepared to take an enormous leap of faith with crazy filmmakers who came to them with an exciting idea and special script. You decide.

DGP: Yes, what were they thinking? Seriously, it's been amazing how much these incredible game-leaders have responded with hearts, energy and resources. It's very humbling and very special.

SOF: You cover some hard-hitting issues – child soldiers, HIV/AIDS, prostitution – and hope to win a family audience. Do you enjoy utterly impossible tasks?

JS: They're hard-hitting issues, but many adults have already thanked us for raising them in a way that provides an opportunity for discussion with their kids.

DGP: I'd add that if it's not worth failing at, it's probably not worth trying. But we also don't believe it's too much of a stretch. Kids and families care about this stuff – and want to be part of making it better.

SOF: Africa United's lightness of touch (it's a 12A) glosses over the grim reality of life in sub-Saharan Africa. Discuss.

DGP: Oh, it's definitely a fairytale, and therefore deals lightly with big issues. But does that mean Cinderella should have been deemed a failure at introducing what it's like not to have parents? Similarly, Oliver Twist regarding runaways? Firing the imagination, particularly of kids, with the humanity of tough situations, was part of the brief we set ourselves.

JS: Yes, you won't see our characters sitting around bemoaning their lot. They use their imagination and ingenuity to work out ways to make life better.

SOF: With a preview at the Greenbelt Festival, for example, and special educational resources available for churches, you're putting real effort into winning over the punter in the pew and getting groups to see and discuss this film. Are you confident they will buy into a movie that doesn't have a religious pay-off?

JS: If you want to see a film that has serious values and a good message, this is for you. If you want to see a "Christian film" that might convert somebody, this isn't for you.

DGP: Yes, it all depends on how you see faith and art. If you feel films should be religious propaganda, I suspect you will not enjoy this one. If you believe that faith, as an old adage of film-making (and Francis of Assisi) states, should "show not tell", I believe there's a huge amount of material in Africa United that churchgoers will enjoy and be moved by.

SOF: With all the goodwill in the world, Africa United could still disappear without trace.

JS: Tell us about it!

DGP: Yes, thank you for that painful reminder.

JS: We will be doing some serious nail chewing for the next couple of weeks.

DGP: You're right, of course, but the film has already received more of a welcome than we dared hoped. Everyone is grateful for that. While we would love to see it connect in a big way, we are realists, too.

JS: Most of all, we would love people to go out on that first weekend of release (Fri 22 Oct) and get that homemade football rolling.

SOF: Our cousins overseas will bug us endlessly about an international release. Can you spare us those "Disappointed of Alice Springs" emails?

DGP: That's all dependent on a strong turnout in UK cinemas on October 22nd!

JS: It's sold in quite a few territories. The US is clearly the big one, though. Future sales depend on how well the film does here.

DGP: Yes, the American buyers are watching. See it and take your friends! We're pretty sure you won't be disappointed.

Africa United is in UK cinemas from Fri 22 Oct

Official and free educational resources for churches and schools available from the Damaris Trust
photo of Debs Gardner-Paterson
Debs Gardner-Paterson is the director of Africa United.
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