War/Dance (2007)

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War/Dance
Dir. Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine
Premiered at Sundance January 19, 2007

Whatever you say about War/Dance, it’s a hell of a lot better dance movie than Stomp the Yard.

It’s also the first documentary of this retrospective, and it’s very conflicting. It’s a stark portrait of hope in the face of horrific tragedy…that’s oddly polished and conflict-free. It’s a window into a generation raised without innocence and their quest to prove that they are more than just victims…that explains nothing about the war around which it revolves. It’s beautiful…it’s too pretty.

War/Dance takes us to northern Uganda, at the fringe of a long, violent conflict between the Ugandan government and Lord’s Resistance Army, an amorphous personality-based terrorist group revolving around a fellow named Joseph Kony who you may have heard about a few years ago when he became the target of an online campaign despite having nearly already been defeated. However, that wasn’t the case in 2005, when 50,000 refugees were packed into the Patongo refugee camp. Although not far from their own homes, the native Acholi people cannot tend to their fields for fear of being murdered or abducted by the LRA.

Even the children are not safe. Tens of thousands have been abducted and pressed into service as child soldiers; hundreds of thousands have been orphaned. But in spite of everything, Patongo’s primary school still competes in Uganda’s annual performing arts competition, giving the children a chance to shine, as well as to demonstrate that their struggle is not to be forgotten. At the competition, Patongo Primary hones its strengths:

  • Western choral, the type of singing you’d expect to hear in an English boarding school, represented here by 13-year-old Rose.

  • Traditional dance, specifically the Acholi ritual dance known as Bwola, whose work we see through 13-year-old Nancy, a surrogate mother to her younger siblings while her mother risks her life tending the fields after her father was diced to death by the rebels.

  • Instrumental music, in which 14-year-old xylophonist Dominic proves himself to be natural showman, but remains haunted by his two-week ordeal as a child soldier.

Dominic is easily the best part of the movie, such as when he breaks his silence about atrocities he was forced to commit in just a few days of abduction, or when he questions a recently captured rebel POW about his missing brother. Would that all of War/Dance was as compelling. Unfortunately, the movie feels derivative of both the “sad foreign children” genre of docs typified by Promises and Children Underground, and the child prodigy genre of a film like Spellbound. The movie does great work with the scenery of northern Uganda, but it feels more at home in a more spiritually-oriented story. You won’t be unhappy that you watched it, but you’ll probably be disappointed.

How Did It Do?
War/Dance grossed just $138,000 in an Oscar-qualifying release in New York and Los Angeles, but it certainly worked: the film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Critics gave it an overall 86% on RottenTomatoes, though a vocal minority mostly aired the same issues that I did.

Next Time: Once