Laura CliffordEven though we live in the war zone we can do great things in life.” These words epitomize the spirit of the children living in government camps amidst the horror of civil war in northern Uganda. We follow three of these children – Rose, age 13, Dominic, 14, and Nancy, also 14 – as they find solace and reward in the nationwide contest that showcases the Ugandan national dance, the Bwola, in “War/Dance.”
A documentary about yet another civil war where the innocent children are its worse victims and a dance contest. Not exactly something that I looked forward to but, in the hands of veteran documentary filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, I was turned around 180 degrees. Their “War/Dance” is an expert melding of despair and hope.
For 20 years, northern Uganda has been gripped by a civil war led by the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.) and that organization was responsible for the fate of the tens of thousands of children in that war torn land. For the boys, sometimes as young as age 5, it meant forced conscription as soldiers for the L.R.A where they are made, at gunpoint, to beat and murder their neighbors and, sometimes, their parents. For the girls, it means a hopeless life as sex slaves for the L.R.A.
Things have not changed much over the past two decades except the number of orphaned children has swelled to over 200000 in number. The government camps they are sent to are overcrowded by a factor of ten with no electricity, no running water and no place to hide from the constant violence. However, within the schools in these camps there is hope – the Ugandan National Music Competition help in the country’s capital, Kampala.
Twenty thousand schools from across Uganda are invited to participate in the selection process that will decide which schools will compete in the contest finale. The Patongo Primary School, in one of the overcrowded refugee camps, is a long shot contender since students from refugee schools do not usually win national competitions.
The Fines carefully construct their enthralling documentary through the eyes of Rose, Dominic and Nancy as each child tells his and her horrifying story. Choir singer Rose witnessed the terrifying aftermath of her parents’ grizzly murders. Dominic, a talented xylophonist, is a former child soldier who escaped the grip of the L.R.A., but not before he was forced to murder two innocent people. Dancer Nancy, after her parents were killed by rebels, had to spirit her three young siblings into the bush to protect them. Theirs are just three of the thousands of similar stories and the Fines use them to hit home the contrast between these kids’ past and current lives. Using words instead of graphic images, the power of their stories is nonetheless just as strong.
The stage thus set, “War/Dance” shifts gears as we watch the students of the Patongo School, who suffered so much, wholeheartedly throw themselves into preparing for the big competition. The civil war stole the homes, parents and childhood from each child but the magic of music frees these young souls to give their all to get the chance to perform in the national event. Their talent and drive propels them to be among the chosen few schools allowed to take part in the competition.
War/Dance” is a gripping combination of gritty brutality and encouraging hopefulness that does a spot on job of keeping your attention from start to finish. The three children’s stories will grab your heart and, yes, turn your stomach but it is the National Music Competition , and the students’ energetic talent and dedication, which make it a complete and fine work. I give it an A.
Laura also gives "War/Dance" an A.
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