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by Tony Hansen

"Tragedy/Triumph in the Heart of Africa"
4 stars

Full of frivolity and playfulness, "Mad Hot Ballroom" provided a look into the world of children’s competitive dancing in New York City. Thousands of miles away, in the, literally, cutthroat world of Uganda, rebel armies have raped, pillaged, and abducted members of the Ugandan Acholi tribe. Here, away from the relative innocent world of New York City, music and dance take on a near mythic importance. These arts provide a cathartic experience that quite frankly saves the participants from lives of desperation. At least, that’s what "War Dance" makes us believe. But is Sean Fine and Andrea Nix-Fine’s documentary an example of well-intentioned cinéma vérité, intruded by that pesky Heisenberg principle? Or, is it a well-executed and emotive piece of social activist cinema?

War Dance follows the lives of the poverty stricken Acholi tribe, who have been displaced from their homes and now live in the Patonga refuge camp. Pitiable and deprived, the people have virtually nothing, except for the horrific memories of their journey. The children of the Patonga grammar school have been asked to participate in a nationwide music and dance competition to be held in the capital city of Kampala. This is the first time that such an honor has been bestowed upon the Acholi children, and if the children find success in Kampala they will bring pride to their tribe. Tightening their story, the filmmakers focus on three children: Dominic, Nancy, and Rose. Each has a unique family history, yet with all three, there is a common theme: death.

And so it is that you will cry. You’ll weep uncontrollably. Get ready to fan your face because it’s going to get sopping wet. When Nancy tells you the story of how she was asked to identify her father, you’ll start sniffling. When Dominic describes the actions that were forced on him by the rebel army, that nose will start dripping. If it doesn’t, well, you are a heartless monster. War Dance is an undeniably powerful film. But the film’s emotional strength doesn’t just come from the way in which it handles heartbreak; the film’s ultimate strength comes from the way in which the film handles achievement. The successes of each of the film’s three protagonists complete the film’s poignancy. Ultimately, the viewer is overwhelmed emotionally as much by the triumphs as the tragedies.

But, even though the film elicits a powerful response, are the viewer’s feelings a product of intense manipulation? Clearly, as in any documentary, there is a definite element of this methodology in the film. Speaking about cinéma vérité, French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin stated, “… there were two ways to conceive cinéma vérité. The first was to pretend that you brought truth. The second was to pose the problem of truth.” War Dance brings truth, but it doesn’t admit that it has a problem. The film, itself, is shot very personally. Along with having interviews of the children themselves, the filmmakers become intimately involved in the musical and dance performances. How, then, can the judges be impartial when they are seeing an American film crew follow the upstart Acholi children musicians? How can they be objective when the film crew is clearly not objective themselves? There is even one, almost laughable scene, when the camera actually looks over the shoulder at a judge’s notes. This had to have affected the judge’s behavior. Thus, War Dance doesn’t escape the Heisenberg principle. The very appearance of the filmmakers affects the film.

This level of manipulation is not confined to the judges of Kampala. The subjects of the film are affected as well. In one telling sequence, which demonstrates manipulation and a bit of exploitation, Nancy finds herself at the spot where her father was mutilated. Understandably, she wails in sadness and even pounds the ground in frustration at his loss. It’s an unbelievably powerful scene, but, ultimately, one is reminded of Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, where Herzog takes Dieter Dengler to the locations of his torture and reenacts some of the most horrific moments from the man’s life. With this in mind, the question must be asked, did Fine and Nix-Fine just innocently decide to follow Nancy, not knowing that there would be a scene? Are the filmmakers following the children to places where they will have to relive the most dreadful and appalling parts of their lives? And, most importantly, does it even matter?

It probably won’t matter to the viewer and, really, it probably shouldn’t. Although the filmmakers are clearly influencing what the audience is seeing, as well as feeling, the reality of the situation is that the emotional reactions of the children are genuine. Everything that happened to these kids really happened. Regardless of the way the filmmakers are manipulating sequences, War Dance is a noble film because it’s another important example of suffering and survival in Africa. While Hollywood synergizes its African films like Blood Diamond with conventionalities and popular culture, films like War Dance shine a matter-of-fact light onto what is an authentic human drama. And even though the successes of the children may seem trivial or false to us, they certainly are not trivial or false to the children. Their true tears are every bit as powerful as anything that we can create.

Ultimately, the greatness of "War Dance" is its goodness. Fine and Nix-Fine’s techniques may be questionable, but their product is the epitome of means-to-an-end filmmaking. Even though they might be cheating, they’re still showing truth.

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originally posted: 06/23/07 15:10:14
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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.

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  09-Nov-2007 (PG-13)
  DVD: 15-Apr-2008



Directed by
  Sean Fine
  Andrea Nix

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