TOWARDS the end of Africa United (Cert. 12A), a leading character objects to all the fuss about kicking a ball in the air. His friend replies that it is not about either of them individually, but “us”: they’re a team — Africa United.
What we have seen by that stage gives us an idea of what that place needs to be united against in order for its aspirations to be realised. The friend’s statement has force because it is delivered from his sick- bed: the weak are stronger than the healthy. In the wrong hands, this film could have been a condescend-ing feel-good movie. Instead, it challenges preconceptions of the continent.
Fabrice (Roger Nsengiyumva), an accomplished schoolboy footballer, is encouraged by his coach to attend the trials at the National Stadium in Rwanda. This could lead to participation in the 2010 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony in South Africa.
Dudu (Eriya Ndayambaje), acting as his “manager” with Beatrice (Sanyu Joanita Kintu), persuades him to abandon his studies and go for a trial. Erroneously, they end up at the National Stadium of the Congo Democratic Republic, where they risk being recruited as child soldiers. Another boy, Foreman George (Yves Dusenge) averts this, and joins them.
Later, a young sex worker, Celeste (Sherrie Silver), throws her lot in with them in a scene that calls to mind Rahab the harlot’s protection of Joshua’s spies. And so the adventures continue for the 3000-mile journey to Johannesburg.
If this film seems to follow the old yellow brick road of just about every quest story, Africa United has a ring of truth about it. Rwanda is not depicted as the uniformly war-devastated, fly-blown African country of Western imagination. Fabrice is from a comfortably well-off family with many of the same accessories that people in the West have. The monsters encountered en route across seven countries are the perils facing contemporary Africa, whether they be civil war, desperate poverty, HIV, or child assassins.
The scale of the tests and temptations that these children face kick into touch any initial anxieties that football trials may have held for them. In fact, Africa United has as much to do with soccer as Brief Encounter has to do with trains. The film is a contemporary pilgrim’s progress. This is hardly surprising, as Rhidian Brook, who has undertaken similar journeys through Africa on behalf of the Salvation Army, wrote the screenplay. He has previously been re-sponsible for several books and television programmes that examine what faith consists of.
The kind of faith that we see at work in Africa United is a hope for things unseen. Johannesburg may just as well be Shangri-La to these young people. They have never been there or seen it, but they believe it exists. When they do reach it (which, as viewers, we know they will), we feel with them that there is a touch of heaven involved.
Debs Gardner-Paterson, a fourth-generation Rwandan descendant of missionaries, has pulled off that most elusive of genres: a film shot through with faith without being stodgy, heavy-handed, or embarrassing.
Back page interview, page 48