Director: Debs Gardner-Paterson
Starring: Eriya Ndayambaje, Roger Nsengiyumva, Yves Dusenge
Runtime: 88 mins
I promised myself I wouldn’t call Africa United – the first feature-length film from director Debs Gardner-Paterson, starring a cast of relative unknowns – the “African Slumdog Millionaire“. I figured that trying to equate the Indian and African cultural landscapes could just be ignorant. Also, I used to work in a one-screen cinema where, due to the film’s success, I saw Slumdog no less than 28 times; you could call Gardner-Paterson’s film the “African Hostel 2“, and I’d probably want to see it more.
But here’s the thing – although it pains me to say it, and although the older film is concerned with different aspects of a huge country, as opposed to trans-national identities within the African continent, Africa United pretty much is the African Slumdog Millionaire. It’s a film with major British involvement in its production, and dialogue spoken mostly in English; it’s cheesy, it’s feel-good, it has a plot that’s secondary to the mood, and it touches on serious issues while being matter-of-fact about them. It’s endearing and by consequence infuriating in equal measure, especially to a cynic (which I am).
Instead of a gameshow, its central conceit is football, as a group of Rwandan boys, played by a superb cast, try and walk thousands of miles to reach the football World Cup in South Africa. Rather than a cloying romance, the heart of Africa United is the triumphant power of friendship. One of the characters is a former child soldier, played by Yves Dusenge, and his transformation from a kid with serious issues to – as the lead character Dudu (Eriya Ndayambaje) calls him – a “peacemaker” seems a little forced. Perhaps a pragmatic view of poverty and disaster is healthy, but the discovery that one character has HIV feels like its missing an important tragic element.
Being a feel-good movie, it has a happily-ever-after vibe that isn’t robbed from us. It’s at least slightly cathartic and – weighing in at just less than 90 minutes – never outstays its welcome. It’s well-performed, doesn’t dwell on deeper political problems that understandably aren’t on the minds of the children of the story, and is extraordinarily good at rounding out each individual character – even the child soldier feels real, despite his quick change in attitude. Africa United is great if you feel like postponing reality for an hour and a half. Just don’t see it more than once.