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Interview: Debs Gardner-Paterson, director of Africa United

19 October 2010

I’ve been interested in storytelling for ever. I came out of college and got straight on a plane to San Diego, selling textbooks door-to-door be­cause I was a bit horrified of that awful void at the end of a degree.

Then I heard about this job pre­senting football on TV in Singapore. So I used the money I made selling books, got on a plane, and got this job, which I did for a year. It just con­firmed my feeling that I was inter­ested in moving images.

So I came back to the UK, started working on promo shorts, editing dif­ferent things, getting as much experi­ence as possible. But the more I was trying to achieve, the further I felt I was getting away from the things I was meant to be doing.

Then I was in a massive car accident in 2003, and was out of action for about a year — a cliffhanger be­tween life and death. I didn’t know if I would walk or talk again.

That seemed to wipe the slate clean. I realised that it isn’t ambition that matters in life: it’s people. I recovered, and then worked at a church, running their arts and media department, making little short films to go in their notices at the weekend, that kind of thing: a million miles away from any­thing in the industry.

The accident was something you’d never choose, but you’d never swap. It was in many ways terrifying, but the most phenomenal experience of learn­ing about God, love of other people, trust, hope, healing, and waiting.

The result of the crash is that I learned not be afraid of failing. It was an utter catastrophe, and if it was anyone’s fault, it was mine, because I was driving. We are educated into feeling that you have to do well at school, you have to do well at uni­ver-sity, you have to get a good job, and so on. But I think God isn’t interested so much in perfection as in the pursuit of truth, relationships . . . the things he’s about.

Sometimes we cut ourselves out of things for fear of not being good enough, not being perfect. It’s mas­sively liberating to realise that so long as you’ve tried to do something good, that’s what’s important.

When I woke up in hospital, my face was massively scarred — and the only thing I’d seen on film was that people with scarred faces are rejected. But, actually, my experience in hos­pital was that I never felt love as I did then. How influential these stories are! It’s really exciting that stories present sides of the world that you might not see in any other way.

In early 2007, I was feeling strong again and hungry to do stuff. I wanted to make a film, and remem­bered a story I’d heard on the radio in Rwanda about ten years previously. I made contact with a Rwandan film-maker, and some friends got on a plane with me out there, and we made a short film. It won a couple of festival nods, and some producers saw it and said they would like to work with me.

We made a couple more shorts, and then the idea for this one came through, and Pathé said, “Yeah, you can do it.”

It was a four-million-quid budget, but that’s not very much when you’re working with kids and the schedule is crazy and you’re filming in three different African countries: South Africa, Rwanda, and Burundi.

We finished filming in April, and the world première was in Toronto in September — especially quick. We had to make a virtue of moving quickly. The upside was that I didn’t have time to worry or agonise about the artistry.

The timescale for the film was a mas­sive challenge, but that was partly what made it happen — we realised it was now or never. We needed to film parts of it when the World Cup was happening; so everyone knew it would be a crazy adrenalin thing, and we’d have to pull off the impossible.

As a result, I think there’s a freshness in the film, as if it was all just happening — and it was. We were think­ing on our feet. It was a proper unit of 100-150 people in South Africa, and in Rwanda a slightly smaller crew of about 80, moving location every couple of days. The logistics for the production team were no mean feat. They did a fantastic job.

I like heat: I don’t like being cold. In the jungle in South Africa we all had to tuck our socks into our trousers to stop ticks, and there were big old spiders, but no, man — I love explor­ing new places, and that’s just part of the deal, isn’t it?

I was made in Taiwan. But I grew up in York, and most of my education was in the UK. My parents were mis­sionaries so they were based in Taiwan and China. I took my A levels in India and my first job was in Singapore.

My mum and her family for four generations back were from Rwanda; so I’m actually eligible for a Rwandan passport.

My parents are both in Taiwan, and I have four sisters — some of my best friends in the world. There were five of us born in seven years; so we gave each other a hard time growing up, but, man, it’s paying off now. They are amazing individuals, and now there are husbands and boyfriends coming into the mix.

My husband’s a composer; so we exist in the same kind of world, which makes things difficult sometimes but also great — we both understand it and share the same passion. The most reassuring, favourite sound for me is when I’m working on my stuff in my room, and listening to the music he’s working on next door.

Show me the project where you don’t look back and think you could have done something better. Every day on a shoot there are always mas­sive disappointments — but that’s part of life.

All of us involved in the core team, while we all have a faith, I guess, we’re all passionately of the belief that you show, don’t tell. That’s one of the principles of film-making. You never want to have someone on the screen describing the action or emotion — you need to see it played out. It’s very similar in matters of faith. It’s real if you can show it. It sounds false if you have to describe it or be propagandist about it.

Casting for the film, we looked for the children out of five countries in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, and the UK. Two of the kids were from the Rwandan diaspora living here in the UK, who were born during after the 1994 genocide in which their fathers were killed. The other three are a mixture of Ugandan and Rwandan kids. They’re all at school, and the two here have done their GCSEs. It was the first time of acting on screen for all of them, and I think they’re all really excited about the première right now.

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” My grandparents went to Rwanda and lived there all their lives. They embodied that saying of Jim Elliott. He went as a missionary and was killed very early on, but his wife stayed out there.

Among directors, David Fincher [The Social Network] is an amazing storyteller. Anthony Minghella [The English Patient] takes you into an­other world. Danny Boyle [Train­spotting, Slumdog] is brilliant, vis­ceral, full of compassion.

As for religion, I really rate Rob Bell, and I studied for a Theology MA part-time in London with Crispin Fletcher-Louis, who has a brilliant mind, studying scripture from a socio­logical and historical perspective.

The most astonishingly beautiful place I’ve been in was Eritrea — which looks like a Dali painting. I like being in really high places. I like dis­covering new places. I like being warm. I love big, massive views.

Bigotry makes me angry; things that shut people out, injustice. And I’m guilty of all of them.

I was happieset on hearing that the film-backers will give 25 per cent of the profits away, once we get into profit. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.

Normally I pray that I will come to understand what I can’t understand, or for help for something I can’t fix.

Facebook is brilliant for keeping in touch with people. We’re part of a global community. There’s a genera­tion who, no matter what their faith is, have a genuine desire to make the world healthier rather than just take their slice. That hunger for things to be better is brilliant.

I’d probably like to be locked in a church with Barack Obama. I’d love to have a good old chat with him.

Debs Gardner-Paterson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
Africa United opens in cinemas today. Official and free educational resources are available from www.damaris.org/africaunited.

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