Unless our own troops are involved (or in rare cases, our vital national interest), Americans don’t really care about wars abroad. Whether its ancestral hatred, religious difference, or the standard struggle for power, if the effects don’t reach our shores, we offer only a passing interest. Of course, the minute crimes are committed in the name of such insurgence, we perk up. Add children to the mix and the basic biological uproar occurs. Yet in many African countries, old tribal disputes and ethnic unrest have a permanent place in history. That anything remotely normal occurs in this life during wartime is a miracle. That we in the West pay attention to it is even more improbable.
For years now, Uganda has been at war with rebel forces bent on seizing control, one tribe at a time. In the case of the Acholis in the Northern part of the country, the attacks have been particularly brutal. Children have witnessed the death of their parents, themselves barely escaping with their lives. Many wind up in the bush - tired, hungry, and afraid. Eventually, they become refugees and join the millions sequestered in government sponsored camps. At Patonga, we meet three impressive young people. Nancy watches over her siblings while her mother moves from location to location, looking for work. Dominic fancies himself a superstar musician. His skill at the xylophone covers up a deep, dark secret. And Beth is an indentured servant to her cruel and callous aunt. Like Cinderella without an invitation to the ball, her days AND nights are filled with mindless and menial chores.
Sean Fine, Andrea Nix Fine
Akena Dominic, Alimo Rose, Achen Nancy
US theatrical: 9 Nov 2007 (Limited release)
But when it comes to singing, dancing, and playing traditional and Western songs, these children are very special indeed. The Patonga School has just won an invitation to the prestigious National Music Competition in Kampala, and in Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine’s fascinating War/Dance, a camera crew follows their meticulous preparations. Along with several dozen students of various ages, these teenagers spend countless hours training for the contest. During their brief downtime, they play, worry, dream, and try to forget the raging horrors all around them. Following their progress for three months, the filmmakers provide insight into the Acholi’s desperate situation. They also reveal how genocide and gang mentalities have caused widespread slaughter and the ever-present stench of human atrocity.
While it may sound scripted, each subject has an unsettling story to tell. Nancy outlines how her mother had to bury the vivisected body parts of her cruelly killed father. She also cuts a concerning figure as she stands in line with older, angrier exiles waiting for the UN to pass out their pathetic rations. Beth is so berated, so oppressed and ostracized that no one will help her pack when she prepares to compete. Of the three, Dominic remains the most optimistic and memorable. Briefly held as a prisoner/subscription soldier by the rebels, he tells of a brother’s bravery (which may have cost his life) and the day he was told to beat a farmer to death. In calm, considered tones, he confesses his crime. The Fines are not out to defend or condemn these kids. Instead, we are witness to a literal loss of innocence, youth snatched away by equally young men who play the “only following orders” card when confronted.
Indeed, one of War/Dance‘s best sequences is when Dominic heads to the local military base to question a captured insurgent. Defiant at first, but slowly opening up, the former “freedom fighter” takes the ‘done by directive’ stance. When challenged, he admits that what he did was wrong - with an explanation. Apparently, killing whole villages and kidnapping their children is a means of winning respect and gaining authority. The more hostages you have, in conjunction with the number of notches on your belt, brings a certain level of admiration within the rebel set. Luckily, the Fines don’t dawdle on this material. The prisoner could pontificate for days and we would still have a hard time fathoming his death and destruction explanations.
No, our story settles for the standard last act contest, with our outright underdogs (Patonga has never made it to the Nationals before, and the prejudice among people outside the North has practically guaranteed them a last place humiliation) taking on the city slicking favorites from years past. If it wasn’t caught on tape as it happened, you’d swear it was the contrivance of some Hollywood scriptwriter. With their coaches watching on, and the specious looks from the spectators foreshadowing a sense of doom, our team truly rises to the occasion. Though we don’t see the other schools in action, Patonga delivers in both its Western and Original Composition rounds. We even think that they might be able to pull off an upset. But when they totally destroy the defending champions during the Tribal Dance sequence (their choice - the Bwola), we’re convinced they will win.
The wrap up is as unpredictable as it is emotional. Before the trophies are handed out, the kids get a trip around Kampala, and to see their reactions to things like TVs, airplanes, and food stalls is astounding. For a brief, shining moment, they are children again, existing within the kind of idyllic, carefree childhood that everyone in the West takes for granted. By the time they return to the camp, conquering heroes or not, our perspective of the situation has shifted radically. War/Dance suggests that talent can overcome even the greatest of tragedies. All one has to do is receive vindication for their attempts, and a whole new outlook blossoms. As the credits roll, the Fines update us on all three kids. There are no last minute twists, no ‘should have seen its coming’ dates with destiny. Instead, we discover how important the competition really was. Beside the challenge, it changed these kids in profound ways.
There will be those who see the slick cinematography, the subjects staged like models making a very special Benetton ad, and cry foul. And when we see the Africa skyline shimmer with cobalt blue rainclouds, thunder and lightning acting as a Greek Chorus for what is to follow, the Fines could be accused of mild mannered manipulation. But when your story is as sound as this one, when the subjects have been through the kind of Hell described, a little coaching can be tolerated. After all, War/Dance couldn’t save these kids if they had to. This is the real world, one ruled by ridiculous tribal jealousies, the same petty power struggles, and the mass murder that tends to occur when the other two elements are present. It’s almost impossible not to appreciate what the film accomplishes. Maybe this will be the wake up call the West needs. Or maybe not.
War/Dance is distributed by Shine Global. Their official website is: www.shineglobal.org . The DVD can be purchased from this website.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.