I like singing. Everything feels okay again, like I’m home and not in the camp.
“Most people in the world think this is the way people live in Africa,” says 14-year-old Nancy. She’s referring to shots of refugees at northern Uganda’s Patongo Camp, jostling on line for sacks of meal and cans of vegetable oil, delivered by trucks that come once a week. “But I want to tell them that this is not the way that people in Africa live. I miss my old home in the village.” Her revision, echoed in the stories of several other Acholi children in War/Dance, focuses not on how people suffer, but on how they survive.
For Nancy and her fellow refugees, survival is an ongoing process, a diurnal, conscious effort. As Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine’s documentary frames it, this process is also political and moral, a struggle to sort out the frankly unimaginable horrors that have shaped Nancy’s existence. The titular slash construction indicates the two concepts in tension and alignment: the Patongo children work through war with music. Performers in the government-protected camp’s primary school music troupe, they have won a recent regional contest and are headed for the national finals. Singers, dancers, and musicians, they describe their dire histories and also look toward possible futures, forging a sense of community and identity in art. As 14-year-old xylophone player Dominic puts it, “In our daily lives, there must be music.”
On its face, War/Dance documents their progress, their rehearsals with local instructors such as Jolly Okot (who observes, “Music is a big therapy”), as well as professional teachers, who mean to give the group a kind of extra polish as the finals near, to “uplift their standard.” This part of the documentary is more or less straightforward: the camera follows the kids as they practice their parts and also perform their usual chores (sweeping, cooking, washing clothes). They work hard, their dances are precisely choreographed, strenuous, and beautiful, shot with handheld cameras and exhilarating to see.
Beyond such standard documentation, at once inspiring and picturesque, the film also includes the children’s recollections of violence and trauma (they have lived in war zones all their lives), illustrating their stories with harrowing, sometimes strangely gorgeous imagery. Dominic remembers an attack by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a force at war with the Ugandan government for some 20 years now. “I was nine years old when I was abducted,” he says, the film showing shadows and a close interior as he remembers hiding with his brother in his village schoolhouse, where they hoped they would be safe. “At midnight,” he says, “Someone was trying to get in the door with a bayonet,” and he and his brother were “scrambling to find anyplace to hide.” You see a spider, hanging on a thread, as Dominic narrates, “Everyone was so quiet, the only noise was the sound of an axe cutting the window.”
As difficult as this story is to tell, the film makes visual the children’s fear, with images less linear than impressionistic. A shot from behind Dominic’s head, looking out at a dark schoolroom, cuts to a blurred, surrealish image of his eye in extreme close-up. He doesn’t know what happened to his brother, who was beaten. But Dominic and other boys were forced to become child soldiers: “I haven’t had the courage yet to tell anyone what happened,” he says. Similarly, the film illustrates a story told by Rose, a singer. Initially, the camera takes her point of view, running through a field in the sunlight, her hand trailing over the tall grasses. This pleasant perception is interrupted when Rose recalls LRA soldiers taking her to see a large pot, near a “big tree” swarmed by ants and flies: “It was so ugly,” she says, as the camera shows close-ups of bugs. “The soldiers,” she says, “removed heads one by one from the pot. I recognized my parents. When I saw my mother’s head being pulled from the pot, I felt like I was losing my mind… There is nothing more I can say.”
These depictions are not conventional documentary images: War/Dance doesn’t show maps or revisit all the sites of devastation, it doesn’t chart trajectories or detail dates and numbers. Instead, it poses a fundamental question: how to represent such horrors, so they are not only “true” to specific experiences, but also comprehensible to viewers without personal touchstones for understanding. While viewers of documentaries about war-torn regions are typically exposed to images of brutal aggression, destruction, and/or loss, such representations can never be commensurate to the experience, but can only approximate.
The distinctions and similarities between representation and experience constitute a definitional problem for documentary as a genre. Even if reality TV has trained up a generation of viewers to distrust reality on screen, documentary remains a genre based in faith that images can convey truths, however they may be composed, edited, or accompanied by soundtracks. War/Dance complicates such tradition, trying to express events that seem beyond expression. Illustrating memories and recreating events, it expands on its witnesses’ stories in order to communicate what they’ve lost and what they hope for.
When Nancy describes her father’s murder by members of the LRA, her words can hardly bear the weight of such trauma. “The rebels,” she remembers, “cut our father into pieces with machetes,” leaving her mother to “pick up and bury the pieces of him.” War/Dance grants oblique access to Nancy, Rose, and Dominic’s stories, making clear their dreadfulness but also the children’s resilience, their determination to find truth and reconstruct their lives. One boy, Okello, interviews a rebel prisoner, seeking the whereabouts of his missing brother. When the child asks, “Why do the rebels abduct children like me when you know it’s a bad thing?”, Mr. Okwera can only say, “I was given orders. I had no choice.”
At once a lie and the truth, the former soldier/current prisoner’s self-evaluation can’t ever speak to the painfully young Okello’s ordeal: it can’t sum up, explain, or address what he’s felt or still feels. And this is the point for War/Dance, showing “what happened” in images that are at once limited and allusive, unsettling and stunning. When, at last, Nancy visits her father’s grave, the camera maintains a respectful distance, showing her devastation and also her survival and strength.