`War Dance:’ The magic of music in a ravaged land

Uganda is a long way from the shores of America.  And farther yet to the mind’s eye is northern Uganda, a dreadful place in the central African bush.  In fact, as we learn in the beautifully-made and inspiring documentary, “War Dance,” it is even a long way from Uganda proper.  The North is a violent and strange country within a country. 

The film, a 2007 Oscar nominee (“Taxi to the Dark Side” won), homes in on three children of the Acholi tribe.  Dominic and Nancy, both 14, and Rose, 13.  They are all victims in one way or another of the horrendous 20-year war fought in the North between the Ugandan government forces and rebels known by the horribly-distorted name,  the Lord’s Resistance Army.  This rebel army sustains itself by abducting children as young as 5  from the region’s villages.  The boys become murderous soldiers and the girls are used as sexual slaves.  To escape brings risk of death.

In one riveting scene, the clean-cut Dominic describes his kidnapping by rebels and how he was forced to take part in the murder of some innocent farmers.  He was one of the lucky.  He escaped and survived. 

And yet another poignant scene shows the skinny, plain-faced Rose, led by her mother to the grave of her father.  He was hacked into a bloody stew by rebels, his wife forced to bury the remains.  A Christian cross of rock marks the lonely spot in the bush, and it is there that Rose collapses, lamenting her loss and that her younger siblings will never know their father as she did.

But these scenes are only a backdrop to the bigger picture, a picture of rejuvenation through the magic of music and dance. 

The three children live in the relative safety of a guarded refugee camp.  Imagine, 60,000 people herded together with no electricity and no running water. 

Dominic, Nancy and Rose attend the camp school, Patongo, where bullet holes dot the walls.  Where two years before, 29 children were abducted from the school by the rebels.   But amid the squalor and horror some brightness exists.  All three attend a school where dedicated teachers display zeal and determination in making a better life for their charges.  

The focus here is on an upcoming event, the National Music Competition, in Kampala, the capital.  To the surprise of all, Patongo has captured the regional prize and has qualified for the nationals.  Dominic is a budding talent with a crude, home-made xylophone assembled with wood strips and twine.  Rose and Nancy sing in the choir and dance. 

The childrens’ stories are interspersed with shots of camp life and music and dance rehearsals leading up to the finale:  The two-day, 200-mile trip to Kampala in the back of an army truck, a rifled soldier in uniform standing guard among them.  In Kampala a new world opens up.  Many of the students have never set foot outside of camp, and they are photographed agog, watching the preparations of their competitors, all from the wealthier south.  How Patongo performed and the students journey back into camp carry the dramatic last scenes.

It is hard to imagine better cinematography anywhere than the gorgeous, intimate and telling shots rendered by Sean Fine.  It is Sean and his wife, Andrea, who  directed the film. 

As good as it gets, the film is sometimes short on credibility.  Some, if not all of the interviews with the film’s clearest voice, that of Dominic, seem scripted. No war-zone child would likely make the sweeping, succinct and pointed statements that Dominic does.  Also one has to wonder how much the presence of the camera might have skewed the results of the national competition.  Did Uganda politicos weigh in?  What savvy government would waste the opportunity for some good PR in America?   Small points, perhaps.

I write three years after the film’s release and doubt many Americans have seen it.  A pity.  This is a film done by Americans, the Fines, but Uganda is more pig-Latin than geographical name to many in the U.S., a country that has turned increasingly inward in recent years.  Certainly with a blind eye to anything African.

Still, curious minds will find a gem here.  Only those with the hard hearts of a gravestone will not feel a deep connection to these resilient children of war by time the film ends.

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