Duration: 90 minutes
Directors: Inigo Gilmore, Philip Sansom
By Caz Armstrong
“TOPOWA! Never Give Up” is one of the most joyful and uplifting documentaries I’ve ever seen. Join 12 musicians in the ‘Brass For Africa Teachers Band’ as they go from rehearsing in the slums of Katwe, Uganda to performing on stage with their hero, jazz legend Wynton Marsalis at the Cheltenham Festival.
Opening with some stark facts, we learn that 50% of the population of Uganda are under 14 years old, and that 70% of those have no access to welfare or education. It’s against this backdrop that we enter the Namuwongo slum and meet the players and teachers of Brass For Africa. This is a charity which teaches music and life skills in a number of African countries.
We meet various brass players in the band and get to know what it means to them to be able to play a brass instrument. Sumayya is one of only two women in the band and probably the only female Bb tuba player in the continent. She tries to inspire young girls, showing that they can achieve great things, no matter what others may say of their gender. We also meet Tadeo who lost his hands and feet in a fire when he was one week old and now plays the trombone at an expert level and teaches others.
This is no Comic Relief-style white savior story shown through the eyes of a white Westerner. The participants speak for themselves and introduce their own stories. They have all learned to play their instruments to a world class level and in turn teach others, changing children’s lives for the better.
Their histories of poverty and abuse are not used as inspiration-porn but to show that we are all the same. We’re all humans capable of learning, finding passion and living life with determination. The musicians’ difficult histories are explained briefly but not lingered upon.
We see what life in the slums is like from an insider’s perspective and in their own words. Visual comparisons with affluent western countries are drawn using things like the food, chores, landscapes and waterways. It’s refreshing to see this gentler and more human comparison when we’re so used to seeing earnest celebrities pointing out the various aspects of poverty that have shocked them while wiping away tears.
The main thrust of the documentary gets a little lost at times, at the risk of veering into here’s-some-assorted-pieces-of-information territory but it manages to hold together. One of the main aspects being their quest to get the papers needed to travel to the UK, experience British culture and perform on stage, something that’s incredibly difficult if you grew up in an orphanage with no birth certificate. The other is that four of the players will be auditioning to join the British Army Band which they’re able to do as Uganda is part of the commonwealth.
There are some re-enactments of too-convenient conversations that feel stilted and out of place. But the genuine and heartfelt joy of the rest of the film makes up for that. We can forgive the filmmakers for needing to add a few slightly unnatural moments in order to help things tie together in the edit.
This is a deeply joyful film full of passion and human connection through the international language of music. It will fill up your soul, get you dancing and leave you grinning from ear to ear.