War/Dance

The simple recipes often work best. With a terrible conflict as a backdrop, an ambitious social project for children turns despair into hope. There will be a somewhat happy ending, followed by a title card pointing you to the appropriate charity.

“War/Dance” falls into this category of documentaries, which makes it a bit predictable. But while the film follows this simple recipe, the ingredients are incredibly powerful. The conflict is the civil war in Northern Uganda, where rebel forces of the “Lord’s Resistance Army” terrorise the local Acholi tribe. Children have been abducted and forced to become soldiers, and many have lost their parents. Now living in a refugee camp, their big project is to learn the traditional dances and songs of their people. For the first time, their school takes part in a nationwide music competition in the far-away capital. Nobody expects the kids from the war-torn region to win, but in the end, they take home awards.

http://https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UATS5K9IZT0

It is impossible to imagine what these children went through. The protagonists are Rose (13) who witnessed the murder of her parents, Nancy (12) who hid in the bush with her young siblings after rebels had kidnapped her mother and killed her father, and Dominic (14) who, as a child soldier, even had to kill people himself. Making music becomes a healing process, or at least a distraction.

During the first half of the film, “War/Dance” interweaves simple observational scenes of the kids practicing for the contest with a carefully set-up second level that illustrates the tragic background through interviews with the children and truly powerful, rather abstract visuals. Thunder and lighting at night, details of eyes, locations of horror. Intense confessions to the camera make us feel incredibly close to the children, but never exploitative. However, this strong storyline is abandoned in the second half of the film. When the children travel to Kampala to take part in the competition, the film just switches to plain vérité and starts to feel long. There are no real surprises. Most of the interaction just happens between teachers or instructors and the students. We don’t really get to see the children dealing with each other.

Having said this, “War/Dance” is a well-crafted piece of filmmaking. Earlier this year, Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine received the Best Documentary Director award at Sundance. Their film comes without narration and with a sophisticated soundtrack. A few intertitles tell us the basics. This way, we don’t learn much about the political background of the civil war-but we really don’t need to. This conflict is incomprehensible anyway-to us as well as to the children.

To a critical viewer, a simple story can easily feel too simplistic. But for the festival audience at Hot Docs, this film worked incredibly well. “War/Dance” won the Audience Award.

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