Saturday, October 16, 2010

Africa United

Foreman George (Yves Dusenge), Beatrice (Sanyu Joanita Kintu), Celeste (Sherrie Silver), Fabrice (Roger Nsengiyumva), Dudu Kayenzi (Eriya Ndayambaje)

Africa United, which has it's premiere at the London Film Festival on Sunday, 17 October 2010, before going on general release across the UK five days later, features a cast of children aged 11 to 15 who had never acted before, a writer producing his first script and a director, Debs Gardner-Paterson, making her first feature film.

It has already been compared favourably to Slumdog Millionaire and won a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival last month.

Africa United is a road movie about five children who travel 3,000 miles to reach the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Their backgrounds are as diverse as the continent – Fabrice, a middle-class football protégé; Dudu, a Rwandan Aids orphan with a true sense of determination; Beatrice, his God-loving and gentle little sister; Celeste, a proud teenage sex worker; and Foreman George, a traumatised former child soldier from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The former Sudanese child soldier turned rap star Emmanuel Jal, who plays a villain, is the only name audiences may recognise, and for him it was an acting first.

One of the most remarkable twists the production of the film took was during the search for the boy who would play Fabrice. The role required remarkable footballing skills along with the acting.
With just five weeks to go before shooting began, the original choice pulled out, and producer Mark Blaney was in Norwich for Christmas when his mother-in-law handed him a newspaper cutting. A local boy whose mother had fled the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was trying out for Norwich City.
“It was a complete fluke. Luckily there weren’t too many Rwandan surnames in the Norwich phone book,” said Roger Nsengiyumva,aged 16.
His mother Illuminée had been a bride for only two days when violence erupted. Within a month, her Tutsi husband John had been murdered by the same Hutu neighbours who had toasted the couple’s future. By 1996, she had found her way to Norwich with her baby son.
Within weeks of Blaney finding him, Roger was on a flight back to his homeland and struggling to learn an African accent and work out how to act.
He said that before he was approached, he was focused on studying for his A-Levels at college in Norwich and thinking about a career in the Army. Like his character Fabrice, he also had a passion for football and had even tried out for Norwich City Football Club.
"I have always loved acting but didn't really know what to do to get in to it. There aren't many film auditions going on in Norfolk. I'm just so incredibly lucky that they came to me."

“It was scary, but once I got into the swing of it I loved it and it’s definitely what I want to do,” and Roger has already gone on to complete another acting role in a BBC drama.

“In Africa United I was playing who I might have been if I’d stayed in Rwanda, although my character Fabrice is really quite well off, but I do think about who I might have been without the education I’ve been able to get in England.”
Fabrice is spotted by a football scout looking for young players to represent Africa at the World Cup ceremony in Johannesburg and told to turn up at an audition in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. A wrong bus leads to the epic journey.

Sherrie Silver, 15, (represented  by Waring and McKenna) who brings sass and glamour to the role of child prostitute Celeste, was also born during the Rwandan genocide and now lives with her mother in south-east London, where she says her favourite sport is shopping. Her regular haunt is Westfield, London’s gigantic shopping centre.

The casting has brought other splendid inversions. Yves Dusenge, 15, who is magnetic as the ex-child soldier Foreman George, all high, wide cheekbones, taut movements and a capacity to speak volumes just by gazing into the lens, is in reality a cheery middle-class boy at boarding school in Uganda (his father is a church leader; his mother is doing a masters in counselling). Sanyu Kintu, 11, from Uganda, resembles Beatrice being sweetly serious, but her parents are very much alive: her father works in microfinance and property.

The biggest surprise is Eriya Ndayambaje (Dudu), who although Rwandan is neither Hutu nor Tutsi, but Twa, pygmy; his parents still live in the forest on the Uganda/Rwanda border. 'They are the third tribe and totally despised by everyone,’ Gardner-Paterson says. 'So it’s brilliant, totally brilliant, the lowest of the low is the star of the film.’ Eriya, now aged 15, has a high old time as the orphan Dudu: beaming, unflappable, wise beyond his years. In a film where the punches are meant to hurt, he keeps wiping the smile back on to your face.

Eriya is the most experienced performer, having been in a dance troupe since the age of seven.

But they all blossomed under Gardner-Paterson’s benign attention. 'This woman is doing great things,’ Eriya said during the shoot, 'She tells me, OK, bring out yourself, show what Dudu is supposed to show. And when she sees my face is getting somehow kaput she says, Eriya, what do you need?’

Like Slumdog, the makers of Africa United have been very conscious of the issues of working in a developing country and insist all of the children, none of who come from destitute or slum backgrounds, have been carefully looked after. Pathe is donating 25 percent of the film’s net profit to Comic Relief. So Africa United stands to change not just the mindsets of British audiences and the fortunes of its talented cast, but will also put back into the places from where the story sprang.

As Dudu says in the film: “Impossible is nothing.”

Africa United goes on general release on 22 October.

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