Africa's children get the 'Slumdog' treatment

A new feature film set in Rwanda hopes to show the continent in a positive and uplifting light.

A film that its makers claim will do the same for Africa's children as Slumdog Millionaire did for India's – but rather more sympathetically – premieres at London's Leicester Square tonight.

Africa United tells the story of three Rwandan children who travel across Africa in the hope of taking part in the opening ceremony of the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg, but board the wrong bus and end up in a children's refugee camp in Congo. It tackles serious issues such as HIV, child prostitution and genocide, yet its makers claim it's an uplifting tale that will correct the "perceived stereotype that Africa is just about safaris or pestilence or death".

The film is set in a country still best known for the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people were murdered in 100 days. The struggles between the nation's Hutu and Tutsi peoples were dramatised in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda and have been examined in numerous documentaries. "The fact is that these films have created a negative image of the continent, that it is just bleak," said Eric Kabera, 40, a producer on the new film and the director of the 2001 genocide documentary 100 Days. "I'm partly responsible for that, as a film-maker. But I lost countless members of my family in the genocide. It is part of my life and a story that has carried across the world."

The new film was made by the British director Debs Gardner-Paterson, who was born in North Yorkshire but is fourth-generation Rwandan as a result of her great-grandparents' move to Africa as missionaries in the early 1900s. She hopes that the film can show the world a different side to Rwanda. "Someone read the script and said to me, 'You've got it wrong, 'cos this African kid has got a mobile phone.' I was like, 'That's the point!' It's true, there is a middle class up and coming in Rwanda," said Gardner-Paterson, who scoured Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Britain for children to appear in the film.

Like the actors who helped to make Danny Boyle's 2008 Slumdog Millionaire such a hit, many of the children in Africa United had never acted before. Norfolk schoolboy Roger Nsengiyumva, who plays football prodigy Fabrice in the film, was picked after a producer saw the 16-year-old's picture in a local paper. Rwandan-born Roger moved to Norwich with his mother after his father was killed in the 1994 genocide, and the story of their escape was made into a book, Miracle in Kigali. Similarly, Sherrie Silver, who plays runaway Celeste, also moved to Britain from Rwanda with her mother in 1999.

The film-makers are keen to avoid the criticism which was levelled at Boyle and the film company behind Slumdog, who were accused of exploiting the community in which they filmed. "Our kids were from different backgrounds; they weren't handpicked from the slums," Kabera said. "And we'll put 25 per cent of the profits into charitable causes that will benefit Rwanda and Africa generally."

Kabera founded the Rwanda Cinema Centre, which aims to promote the country's film industry, and an annual travelling film festival nicknamed Hillywood, owing to Rwanda's mountainous geography. He also established the Rwanda Film Institute, which teaches film, media and TV to 30 to 50 students every year. "There need to be more films reflective of the stories that happen across the continent," he said. "It is highly under-represented in the film industry."

Another much-lauded African film will make its UK debut at the London Film Festival this month. The First Grader stars Oliver Litondo in the true story of an 84-year-old Kenyan former freedom fighter who battles for the right to free education.

Yves Dusenge

Yves – who speaks English, French, Swahili and Kinyarwanda – said he'd "never dreamt of being an actor" when he was picked for the film during a casting at his Ugandan boarding school. He plays child soldier Foreman George, who joins up with the children en route to Johannesburg.

Roger Nsengiyumva

Rwandan-born Roger Nsengiyumva, 16, who plays talented footballer Fabrice, had never acted when he was approached to appear in the film, but had tried out for Norwich City FC. Roger fled to Britain with his mother Illuminée after his Tutsi father was killed during the genocide in 1994.

Sanyu Joanita Kintu

At 11, Ugandan-born Sanyu is the youngest actor to appear in the film. While her previous acting experience was limited to school plays, her grandfather, aunt and brother are all actors who have appeared on TV and in films. Sanyu plays Beatrice, a devout Christian who dotes on her brother.

Eriya Ndayambaje

Part of the Ugandan Ndere Troupe of dancers, 15-year-old Eriya plays Fabrice's cheeky "manager", Dudu. A member of the Batwa tribe, Eriya was raised in a settlement on the edges of Uganda's Impenetrable Forest. This is his first film role.

Sherrie Silver

The 16-year-old moved to Britain from Rwanda with her mother when she was five. After studying dance and acting at stage school, she landed the role of Celeste, a runaway sex worker, in the new film.

Debs Gardner-Paterson

The Yorkshire-raised Cambridge graduate is fourth-generation Rwandan – her mother was born there. Gardner-Paterson's Rwandan heritage prompted a fascination with the way the country is perceived worldwide. Originally a sports TV presenter, she directed the award-winning documentary We Are All Rwandans in 2007.