At least superficially, WAR DANCE sticks closely to a formula we’ve seen in many documentaries before it—underprivileged children finding joy and self-worth through art—but what’s different this time around is the setting: northern Uganda, one of the most hellish places on earth, and just about the least likely backdrop for “inspirational” triumph one can imagine.The film follows three Ugandan children who belong to a tribe forced to live in a displacement camp to evade the rampages of the deadly Lord’s Resistance Army. Though day-to-day life remains ever so precarious, the kids are eager to take up an invitation to compete in the nation’s annual National Music Competition, preparations for which comprise much of the running time.
Directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix (husband and wife), the film offers a somewhat jarring—and ultimately effective—contrast of eye-popping beauty and utter ghastliness. The former comes from the directors’ eye for lovely sunsets and studied framing; the cinematography is excellent, to the point that the filmmakers open themselves to charges that they’re promulgating an overly pretty, postcard vision of Africa. But the Dark Continent really does have its visual splendors; and in any case it can’t be said that the filmmakers are trying to hide from us the extraordinary cruelty of the region.
One by one the children, monologing to the camera (most of the film is subtitled), reveal the horrors they’ve witnessed—and the stories are horrifiying beyond belief: a mother watches her husband hacked to pieces with a machete—then is forced to gather the severed parts and bury them herself; one child is forced to participate in the murder of farmers by butchering them their own hoes; mutilated bodies are stumbled upon; beloved relatives disappear under cover of night. “Since the day we were born we’ve heard gunshots,” one says. The fact that these kids are capable of functioning at all is itself no small triumph. The fact that they remain so committed to their art in the face of all this (one repeatedly promises to become “the best xylophone player in Uganda”) is extraordinary. The film also touches on a phenomenon underreported in the West: the “child soldier,” children kidnapped by rebels and forced to participate in military atrocities.
At 105 minutes, WAR DANCE seems a little long for such a linear, straightforward story; it’s fairly obvious from its earliest scenes where this is all going, and it gets to its target—the big music competition—with a certain predictable inevitability. One also occasionally senses the heavy hand of the filmmakers, as when one child far too helpfully summarizes the overarching point for us: “Even though we live in the war zone, we can do great things in life.”Still, the film’s inspirational message is quite authentic: These people don’t need to wait for Angelina Jolie to rescue them; they can find a measure of dignity on their own terms.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2007 Portland Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2007 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.