I must admit, I went into the showing of Africa United with a fair amount of trepidation. A film about Rwandan children helmed by a white British director, traveling across the continent. What could possibly go wrong? Yet I was pleasantly surprised – Africa United takes two genres I’m pretty suspicious of, the `cute rapscallions go on an impossible journey to fulfill their dream’ and `British film about Africa,’ and somehow, for the most part, makes it work.
The premise is that Fabrice, a middle-upper class Rwandan with a gift for football and his impoverished `manager’, the earnest Dudu, decide to try and get Fabrice into the opening ceremony of the 2010 World Cup in Joburg. Due to a series of mishaps, they end up in the DRC, where they decide to try and make the trip cross-country, eventually joining up with a Congolese child-soldier and a young woman forced into prostitution.
It sounds pretty insufferable, but, the director Deborah Gardner-Patterson touches upon these popular issues mostly with care and nuance. The most impressive hurdle is the movie’s ability to forgo addressing the genocide – something most mainstream films about Rwanda seem compelled to do. The most mention it gets is as part of an elaborate (animated) tale which Dudu constructs as they travel.
There are some exceptions – the range of topics at hand (war, the sex trade, a fair amount about HIV/AIDS) sometimes makes Africa United feel, as The Guardian pointed out, a bit like a Unicef commercial (at one point one of the children asks the other, “Are you a sex worker?”). Also, probably to keep the film friendly for international markets, everybody, and I mean everybody, in this film speaks perfect English – from the militia members in the DRC to the random villagers in Zambia. The editing and pacing are, at times, a little frenzied – the characters aren’t allowed to fully soak in, which might be for the better.
Most importantly – this film is completely devoid of anything approaching poverty porn. The children are portrayed as independent, bright and capable. The environments they find themselves in feel pretty authentic, but the film never lingers on the poverty that some of them face, other than what is necessary to set the scene. Dudu and his sister live in a shack and don’t have a lot to eat, but this poverty acts as part of the setting, not as a character. Aside from the Unicef-inspired bits, this story could have been told anywhere else in the world – but Africa United somehow makes it a little more special, all while avoiding the pitfalls of portraying the continent as war-torn, wild and unknowable.
Go check it out – and let me know what you think.