Q&A with filmmaker DEBS GARDNER-PATERSON
The year 2010 will go down in the history of modern football as the year that the world converged on the African continent to celebrate the ‘beautiful game’ as a truly interactive sport and as a shared experience with a unique lingua franca that bonds everyone from everywhere. Without doubt, the event altered perceptions about Africa (the place), celebrated the industriousness as well as the hospitality of the people. Contrary to distorted media representations, Africa is not all gloom and doom. A widely circulated feature film, Africa United, was inspired by this historical event and SLQ editor, Tinashe Mushakavanhu, interviews the film’s director, Debs Gardner-Paterson who talks about herself, some of the challenges of making the film and its comparisons to the highly successful Slumdog Millionaire.
I read that you describe yourself as a ‘fourth-generation Rwandan’? Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
My mum was born and brought up in Rwanda, as was her father – my great grandparents were bible translators there, and my grandparents were school teachers and missionaries. My aunt and cousin live and work there still. As for me – I was made in Taiwan, raised in Yorkshire, educated in India and the UK, and my first two jobs were in the US and Singapore! I am a patchwork quilt to say the least 😉
As this was your debut feature production, how was it making the film?
The experience was insane and brilliant. I’m not sure how prepared you can ever be to make your first feature – let alone one that is starring kids, filmed in three African countries, mostly outdoors, with wild animals and stunts – and some animated segments! It was crazy for the whole team, but we had a blast doing it
What were the challenges you faced and how did you counter them?
See above for the challenges. We countered them with a good deal of energy and optimism, a wonderfully experienced and adventurous team, and simply the desire that the film seemed to have to exist!
Rhidion Brook, the screen writer of the film, says its not really about football, what is the film really about?
It’s about friendship. It’s about the fact that kids haven’t been told yet what grown-ups know, which is ‘how the world works’ – so, according to them, anything is possible. And it often is.
What is different about this film from other films about Africa that have been made before?
The film was very collaborative between Rwandan and international filmmakers – and had a clear intention to tell a different kind of story about Rwanda. You don’t often get to see a film where African kids are the heroes rather than the victims – especially a comedy! But there have been some wonderful films made in Africa – so I wouldn’t want to distance us too much!
As a young person myself – born and bred in the dusty townships of Zimbabwe – I have always noticed how young people in Africa are not often encouraged to participate in national discourses, whether social, economic or political. Why was it necessary for young people to take lead in this film?
Obviously the wisdom of elders is crucial – BUT kids often have a very ‘clean’ and healthy take on the world, not clouded by politics or disappointment. That’s what’s amazing about a young perspective. I have been impacted by the passion of teenage and 20something Rwandans who I know – who are absolutely adamant that there will be no future genocide on their watch. Protecting, listening and empowering that passion and conviction is crucial for all of us.
There is a negatively skewed perception about Africa in a country like Britain. Do you think the film has changed the mindsets of British audiences about Africa – the place and its peoples?
I don’t know if the film can claim to have changed attitudes, but what I do know is that stories that get told about you can affect you deeply – and I was so proud that our 5 fantastic East African lead actors were gracing the sides of buses and buildings up and down the country on the movie posters! If there is a wall of negative preconception that needs to come down, then hopefully the movie at least took a bit of a chunk out of it 😉
Football was the 2010 theme, largely because Africa was hosting the World Cup for the first time. It made sense for the film to come out then, now that the event has since been over, how are you keeping the film alive in the people’s minds?
Thankfully the film does that for us. I am constantly touched by getting Facebook messages etc, from strangers saying they have seen and love the film
Most reviewers cannot stop mentioning Africa United against Slumdog Millionnaire. Has this comparison been a good or bad thing for the film and or affected the way the audiences perceive or react to it?
That’s a tricky one – I loved Slumdog, but it was by a masterful filmmaker at the top of his game, so it’s difficult to be compared to that, because we will probably come off badly! (Give me a few years 😉 We knew that comparisons would be very likely but Africa United is a very different film – it has more in common with Stand By Me, to be honest, than Slumdog.
And finally, how has the film been received in Africa itself?
We have had a lovely response from those who have seen it – including our African premiere with the Rwandan president and first lady in attendance! That was very nerve-wracking but such an honour and loads of fun. We were also thrilled to get a handful of nominations at last month’s African Academy Awards. The movie releases in African cinemas later this year, so we’re excited to see how that goes.