The Innocence of Africa

October 21st, 2010

The Herald Scotland

The innocence of Africa

By Alison Rowat
21 Oct 2010

Read Full Article Here

Some movie stars can be notoriously difficult to please.

If the mineral water is not from Atlantis or the limo a mile long the risk of tantrums before bedtime is high. Not so with the young stars of Africa United. Give them a glimpse of Jedward and you’d think they’d won an Oscar.

The soon to be famous five (Sanyu Joanita Kintu, 11, Sherrie Silver, 16, Yves Dusenge, 16, Eriya Ndayambaje, 14, and Roger Nsengiyumva, 16), none of whom have appeared in a film before, spent the previous few days preparing for the premiere of the comedy-drama, which took place last Sunday at the London Film Festival. The film goes on release in Scotland tomorrow.

In their case, preparation has meant staying in a five-star hotel in Mayfair with hot and cold running celebs, and that ultimate accessory for every movie star, media attention. Unsurprisingly, the celebs are proving more impressive.

“There are just random famous people walking past,” says Sherrie. “Peter Andre, Jedward, these two footballers, a Chelsea player’s wife…”

If the genuinely thrilled to be here attitude is refreshingly different, so is the film. The tale of youngsters walking from Rwanda to South Africa to take part in the opening ceremony of the World Cup, Africa United has an innocence and hand-knitted charm that calls to mind the good old days of Children’s Film Foundation productions. But in touching upon some of the realities of life in Africa, including Aids orphans, child prostitution, and war, the film also goes where few other movies aimed at the family market would dare.

Achieving a balance between light-hearted and serious was always going to be difficult, but the filmmakers were determined to show an Africa that was a continent away from the usual clichés. For Eric Kabera, one of the producers and the man who came up with the original idea, countering assumptions is all in a week’s work.

“Each time I go to a film festival, my fellow producers and filmmakers will say, ‘Yeah, the gentleman from Rwanda is here with another genocide film. There are so many facets of Rwandan lives other than the genocide. These need to be shared.”

Debs Gardner-Paterson, the director, has long and strong ties to the region. Besides making films in Rwanda (We Are All Rwandans, 2007), her mother was born in the country. In the west, finds Gardner-Paterson, there’s a narrow view of Africa as a place of refugee camps, war, poverty, or safari.

“Anyone that’s ever spent any time in Africa knows that the reality is a massively broad experience. As well as the personality of the different countries and people there’s a richness of culture and creativity.”

When it came to reflecting the recent history of the region, there was an added incentive to keep matters real. For certain members of the young cast, that history is very close to home.

Roger Nsengiyumva was born in Rwanda in 1994, the year of the genocide. His father was among the 800,000 victims. His mother managed to flee from the country with her new-born son, a terrifying journey she recounts in the book, Miracle in Kigali. The family eventually set up home in Norwich.

Sherrie and Yves were born in Rwanda the same year as Roger, with Sherrie moving to London with her mother in 1999. Yves is now at school in Uganda.

Yves has one of the toughest parts in the film playing Foreman George, a child soldier desperate to leave his past behind. Unlike several of the cast, he had never acted in school productions or drama clubs, nor did he know anything of a child soldier’s life. But among the film’s adult cast was Emmanuel Jal, a rescued child soldier who is now a peace activist and rapper. Besides reading his book, War Child, Yves spoke to Jal about some of his experiences. The research paid off, with Yves turning in the film’s best performance as the traumatised youngster who has seen too much.

Sherrie’s homework for the part of Celeste, who joins the group on their journey to South Africa, was researching the lives of child sex workers via documentaries. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a 15-year-old prostitute,” she says. “I was shocked. It really opened my eyes and helped me to appreciate my life more.”

The young cast spent 10 weeks away from home, filming in seven different countries including Tanzania, Congo, Zambia and Burundi. The story of how Foreman George, Celeste, talented middle class footballer Fabrice (Nsengiyumva, who once tried out for Norwich), his Del Boy-style, street kid agent Dudu (Ndayambaje) and his sister Bea (Kintu) get to South Africa is an epic adventure involving laughter, tears, missed buses, explosions, gun-toting pursuers and the occasional wild animal. Life off the set, complete with tutors and chaperones, was much less eventful, though by all accounts just as enjoyable. “Everywhere we went we stayed in really nice places,” says Sherrie. The girls had their mums with them, the boys had chaperones and those all important tools for male bonding, a big telly and an X-Box.

From the way the five behave together, laughing and joking and helping each other out with answers, it’s clear that real friendships were made in this road movie with a difference.

“It’s going to be horrible when these guys have to go,” says Roger.

A reunion could be on the cards next March when Comic Relief has its fund-raising Red Nose Day. You’ll see the Comic Relief logo on the film’s posters – but not because the film was made with Comic Relief money. Time to challenge those assumptions again.

“We felt it would be completely illegitimate to make this kind of film and then a bunch of fat cats at the end benefit from it, if there’s anything to benefit from,” says Gardner-Paterson. “The financiers have rewritten all of their agreements so that if it does make a profit we can give 25% of it away [to Comic Relief].

In the meantime, for the film’s young cast it’s time to put away movie star things and get back to school in Uganda, London and Norwich.

Life has already changed in small but significant ways. At first, says Sherrie, her school friends didn’t believe she was in a movie. Now her face is on the sides of buses and on TV. “People I haven’t spoken to in years are coming back and saying ‘Hi Sherrie, so what are you doing on Saturday?”

The movie star life: a young actor could get used to it.