Judge Jennifer Malkowski is reviewing a documentary about children in a war zone—so tune in next week when our regularly scheduled funny blurb will return.
The war stole everything, except their music.
In the middle of northern Uganda's most dangerous war zone live the people of the Acholi tribe, whose ancestral homeland has been torn apart by civil war. Murder, rape, and abduction at the hands of the rebel army are the very real threats that the children of this region have known since birth. Many who survive these threats have been driven from their homes into a Displacement Camp. Focusing on the children in this camp, War Dance documents a group of students from Patongo Primary School who in 2005 earned the chance to compete in the country's prestigious National Music Competition in Kampala.
For Patongo Primary School, we understand, winning at Kampala is a matter of pride, in the most important and meaningful sense of that word. Part of an trend in recent documentary to show hope and strength in Africa rather than just suffering and victimization, this aesthetically beautiful and emotionally moving film succeeds in that mission of hope. And for the most part, it manages to do so without minimizing the horrific things happening in the region.
Facts of the Case
Three specific children, probably around age 12, tell their own stories in detail to directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine in this documentary. Nancy woke one night in her home to find her mother being held captive by rebel soldiers. She finds out that her father has been brutally killed, and then her mother is taken away, leaving Nancy to get her younger siblings to the safety of the camp and to care for them. Her mother manages to return, but must travel to another camp to work, meaning that her young daughter must still play the caretaker for her fragile family. Dominic is a passionate xylophone player with a horrific past as an abducted child soldier. Burdened by guilt for the acts he was forced to commit during his two-week abduction, Dominic is also gripped by fear and uncertainty about his brother who was also taken by the rebels and did not escape with him. Rose is a solitary girl who loves to sing. Having lost both her parents to the rebels, and being forced to identify their bodies from their severed heads, Rose withdraws from her fellow students at school who serve as a reminder to her that she, unlike them, has no parents. She wants badly to compete in Kampala, but the aunt she lives with has told her she cannot go because of her household and childcare responsibilities at home.
War Dance follows these students through their daily lives and through their group preparation for the National Music Competition. There they will perform dance, music, and theatrical performance in a variety of categories, and will face stereotypes and low expectations from the southern schools who see them only as children of war.
"It's difficult for people to believe our story, but if we don't tell you, you won't know."—Dominic
This line from Dominic opens War Dance and speaks to the principles that drives the film: that documentary can spread awareness of issues in Africa through individual stories of both terrible and inspirational things, and that the right people to tell those stories are the people who have lived them. This film forgoes expert talking heads who will tell us the facts, favoring these three personal tales and the community event of Patongo's trip to the National Music Competition. What's lost in this approach is any sophisticated sense of the political situation in northern Uganda. We see the rebel army the way the children do—as a monstrous shadow haunting their memories and lurking in the bush—not as the LRA, with its specific infrastructure, leadership, goals, and history. We do get a taste of this approach and this information in the disc's primary special feature, with 21 minutes of deleted scenes that include interviews with experts in the region (as well as some additional scenes in the classroom and with Dominic and Rose). The strategy is therefore a trade-off that favors an emotional rather than an intellectual appeal to audiences, but an emotional appeal expertly executed by the Fines in their directing and by the openness and spirit of the children themselves.
Even to hint at the terror and sadness of the experiences these three children describe, the filmmakers need to employ extraordinary techniques in their sounds and visuals. The Fines succeed here with artful, luminous images of the bush calibrated to the tone of the stories and a subtle, atmospheric score. For example, a lightning storm frames Nancy's tale about the night her father was killed:
And as Dominic relates his experience being dragged into the bush by the rebels, we look upward to the night sky through that bush from the perspective of a child on the ground:
Elsewhere in the film, the Fines use a low angle and a gorgeous sunset to visually convey the strength of Dominic's spirit when he plays xylophone and the different world he is transported to through music:
These gorgeously composed shots are crisp and bright in Th!nkfilm's DVD release of War Dance, and the joyful music that fills the film is also nicely rendered on the audio tracks. You'll be hard pressed to find an on-location documentary that looks and sounds as good as War Dance, and my only complaint here is that I wish there had been a commentary track to illuminate how the Fines settled on these particular aesthetic strategies, among other things.
Alongside these artful and atmospheric retellings of the children's stories, we also get scenes from their lives that are done in a more observational documentary style, attempting to capture the events with little mediation from the directors. Two of these are particularly memorable—and heartbreaking. In the first, Dominic ventures to a nearby military base to try to speak with a rebel leader who has just been captured who may know about whether his brother is still alive. The interaction is incredibly tense to watch, and when Dominic has found out all he can, he actually confronts the sergeant with a direct moral question: "Why do the rebels abduct children like me when you know it is a bad thing?" We know that he won't get a satisfying answer, but he asks with the earnestness of someone who does not yet understand that he will never get a satisfying answer to that question, and it's tough to watch. In the other scene, Nancy's mother takes her to her father's grave to make some peace with his death and get his blessing before the competition. But peace is hard to come by for Nancy, who breaks down sobbing, a scene made more poignant and upsetting by the mother's gentle reminder that crying that loudly in the unprotected bush is a dangerous form of grief because rebel forces may be nearby. This scene at Nancy's father's grave is mirrored elsewhere in the film by little reminders of the pressure to overcome one's trauma, as in the teachers' constant admonition to the children to "keep smiling" at all costs during the competition, because the judges are looking for smiling faces when they do the scoring.
In a way, the whole competition is a tenacious and inspiring attempt to "keep smiling" on the part of these children, who all openly describe music and dance as a form of escape. Teacher Jane Mangress says that she teaches music as a way for the children to find relief from their traumas, and when we see her hand furiously trembling as she leads her choir in Kampala, we know that she too has strong emotional investments in their performance. Nancy says, "When I dance my problems vanish. The camp is gone. I can feel the wind. I can feel the fresh air. I am free and I can feel my home." Rose tells us, "I feel proud to be an Acholi when I dance." The music and dancing are clearly escapist practices for the Acholi studetns, but in a situation of extreme violence against children who have no power to save themselves or their loved ones, maybe there is empowerment in escapism. These children draw strength from the ability to transcend their trauma, even briefly, in the production of something beautiful, something that has nothing to do with war. In the face of so much loss and so much destruction, they respond with creation—and a type of creation rooted in their cultural history.
Ultimately, War Dance is a beautiful portrait of hope in a region in the depths of despair. The film balances these two elements, but in a linear fashion that may be reductive: first we hear about the despair in the children's lives, then we see how it is soothed with hope in the form of the National Music Competition. Similar to British documentarian Kim Longinotto's work in Africa, with the excellent films Sisters in Law and The Day I Will Never Forget, the Fines use a narrative structure that ends the documentary with a feeling of jubilation and optimism that may be at odds with the real outlook for the region and even their individual subjects. To me, the best way to get a sense of Africa through ethnographic documentary (an artistic and educational mode that we have to acknowledge may be incapable of giving us a very good sense of Africa at all) is to watch widely from among the most skilled and respectful filmmakers working in this area. By supplementing films like War Dance and Kim Longinotto's documentaries with grittier, more devastating films like The Devil Came on Horseback and the brilliant Darwin's Nightmare, audiences may get a better understanding of past, present, and future of Africa—a massive, complex continent too often simplistically reduced in the Western imagination.
"In my heart, I am more than a child of war. I am talented. I am a musician. I am Acholi."—Dominic
Statements like this one from Dominic, Nancy, and Rose are what make War Dance such a powerful documentary. Though they sacrifice a certain amount of complexity in favor of emotion, Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine have made an extremely affecting film that humanizes the survivors of some truly inhuman deeds and brings positive attention to a part of the world that too rarely receives it.
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