Debs Paterson talks to Naomi Bikis

Text by Naomi Bikis

Photography by Nick Wall

Debs Paterson is a film director who focused on the African continent with the independent films We Are All Rwandans (2008) and the critically acclaimed Africa United (2010). The first offering painted a picture of a war-weary country, while the second, a Rwandan comedy, was dubbed "the African Slumdog", earning her a "Brit to Watch" nod at last year's BAFTAS. She is currently working on a film adaptation of the Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta's autobiography, has co-written a screenplay and is developing a documentary for the London Olympics.

Naomi Bikis Can you explain what made you decide to direct and your journey into film-making?
Debs Paterson I had wanted to direct since I was quite young. I was always interested in telling stories. But I grew up in a missionary family, not a media family, in the north of England and far away from London and any kind of a scene, so didn't see how that would be an option. Some chance encounters presenting TV for a year in Singapore, hard work and a serious car accident got me to a place where I felt like I had some stories to tell. So I started making shorts with friends.

NB You've had quite an unusual upbringing, hopping all over the world during your childhood. How did a girl from Yorkshire end up focusing on Africa?
DP I'm the eldest of five sisters who grew up white in Yorkshire, yes. But I was made in Taiwan with a dad who has spent his life working in China and a mum who was born and raised in Rwanda, and I did my A levels in India. With my patchwork background, I had filled two passports by 18. I guess I saw the world from quite a few angles early on - Indian boarding school, Yorkshire council estate, African aid work road trips, volunteering in Chinese orphanages, and then Cambridge University. The African road trip was particularly seminal. Aged 18, I joined a group of 20-something volunteers who were driving a truck to Africa to donate it to some missionaries. We set off from Wales in January, and delivered the truck to Kenya. The trip was 3,000 miles through 15 countries, from Europe through the Middle East and into Africa, and took three months. I got to spend a month in Rwanda not long after the genocide. My gran and aunt still lived there, so I was really interested to spend some time with them. I had heard such crazy and conflicting stories about the country.

NB So how has Rwanda come to be the focus of your work?
DP After that first trip in 1997, I was really struck by the difference between the stories I heard about Rwanda and the people and stories I experienced there. Having recovered from a serious car accident in late 2003, by early 2007 I was well again and ready to start making films. I realised there were friends around me who would crew projects - if I had a good story to tell. When I was there in 1997, I had been really impacted by a report about some Rwandan kids who had been attacked in their school in the aftermath of the genocide, and who had been willing to face death rather than betray each other. I figured this would be a great story to tell, and started asking friends if they were interested and then making contact with film-makers in Rwanda to collaborate. Less than three months after the idea, we were in Rwanda with the local indie film-makers. Totally self-funded with a budget of £2,700 donated by friends. The UK crew paid their own tickets. By the end of the year, the short was playing festivals internationally. The producers of Africa United saw that short and I made two more with them over the next 18 months until in early 2009 we started work on Africa United. Pathé read the script that summer, watched my shorts, and gave us the go ahead from there.

NB After screening We Are All Rwandans, about life after the genocide, I read that rural Rwandans had a strong reaction to the film, leading to your next movie.
DB The film played incredibly well in the country's capital and overseas, but when we screened it in local communities it was different. They have a festival called Hillywood, where they take an 80ft inflatable screen into rural stadiums and do a traveling film festival. Watching the short play there, there was a palpable sense of "Still? Are we still only watching genocide stories, even inspiring ones, 15 years later? Isn't there more of a Rwandan story than that?"

NB And so you made Africa United. In that film, you dealt with a lot of your characters' issues. An 11-year-old AIDS orphan, a prostitute, a child soldier, a middle-class boy. Yet you were looking to tell a different story?
DP We Are All Rwandans felt like it wasn't representative of all the work the country and everybody there has put into looking to the future, not the past. I realised that I wanted to make a Rwandan comedy. All of us involved in Africa United - British, Rwandan and South African film-makers - wanted to make a love letter to the fun and courage and ingenuity and determined hope of African kids. Of kids everywhere. Our reference points were films such as Stand By Me, Depression-era films like Natty Gann and Pete's Dragon, and even the Goonies. Slumdog Millionaire had opened the door a lot for us too. We just wanted to be honest about the realities in the way that a young audience could handle, as well as going on a properly cool adventure that spoke to heroism rather than victimhood.

NB The young actors weren't trained and hadn't had any experience of filming before. How closely did you work with them to get their performance?
DP With kids, in my view, it's all in the casting and then as much as possible let them do their thing. Our five leads are just utterly brilliant.

NB What do you think of the state of British independent film? Does it feel healthy or is it a bunch of films determined to tackle the bleakest of subjects?
DP I think the British independent scene is alive and well, isn't it? There are some seriously talented film-makers around, it feels to me, both at a more established level and with the up-and-coming generation. I'm dead inspired by loads of British film-makers, that's for sure. I feel like I've had experiences that taught me not to be afraid of working hard or of failing in this industry.

NB How do you work as a director?
DP Directing is such a funny thing, because you carry the whole thing in your head. It's your vision that the producer hires you for and everyone trusts and gets behind - but nothing of the final product actually comes out of your hands. So it's a curious alchemy of bringing together all the best DNA you can in the off and onscreen talent you collaborate with in order to make your baby.

NB You're currently in LA. Are you looking to move into Hollywood?
DP I've been based about half and half between London and LA for the last couple of years. It's been really valuable to get a sense of how the two industries work, so I quite like having a foot in both camps.

NB You must have some brilliant tales of the film industry...
DP One story that will always crack me up is at the Rwandan première of Africa United. The President and First Lady of Rwanda attended, along with a massive room full of dignitaries. I was sitting to the right of President Kagame, and Eriya, who plays "Dudu" in the movie, was sitting to the left of the First Lady. As the film started to roll, Eriya and I both realised the same thing - the film starts with Dudu making a joke about the Kagames' sex life! Eriya leaned out and looked at me with his eyes popping out of his head and I had to lean over and nudge the President, saying "I'm really sorry about this bit!". Thankfully he laughed, and the First Lady laughed more, but that is definitely one I'll never forget.

NB What do you want to achieve with your films ultimately?
DP I'm often accused of over-thinking things, so I'm trying to get better at trusting my gut on this stuff. If something grabs hold of me, if I feel like I'm the right person to tell the story, I'm interested to get under the skin of something that demands to be told. That, and making the kind of films that I would want to go and see.

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  • Debs Paterson Talks to Naomi Bikis