In the early 1980s, a rebel group known as the Holy Spirit Movement formed in Northern Uganda with the aim of overthrowing the Ugandan government. The movement was largely fighting for the interests of the Acholi tribe; however, when the movement's leader fled to Kenya, Joseph Kony gained control of the movement and renamed it the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA quickly became one of the most notorious militias in Africa, murdering, raping, looting, and kidnapping adults and children in order to force them to fight against the Ugandan army. It is in the context of this conflict that the documentary "War Dance" was conceived.
Sean Fine and Andrea Nix take their film crew to a refugee camp in Northern Uganda where they chronicle the efforts of a group of primary school children to compete in Uganda's national music and dance festival. The film focuses on three of the children. The father of one was killed by the LRA and her mother is forced to live in a separate refugee camp to make a living. Another child lost both her parents and is now responsible for her siblings. The third is a boy who was captured by the LRA and made to serve as a child soldier. He escapes the LRA, but not before they force him to kill innocent people.
The first hour of the film is dedicated to telling these tragic stories. The brutalization and suffering of the children is heart breaking, especially as one understands that they are not at all unique among the children affected by the conflict.
The second hour of the film is dedicated to following the children's trip to Kampala and their participation in the national competition. Upon arriving at the festival, the children discover that the other children at the festival distrusted them and believe them to be rebels. The mistaken belief is likely due to the fact that the children themselves are Acholi. Their "outsider" status fuels an already vigorous tribal pride among the children and seems to motivate them to perform well.
"War Dance" is in essence two films: the first tells three brutal stories, while the second is an exuberant celebration of music and dance. Brought together, these two films effectively communicate the horror that so many suffer in Africa's conflicts, while insisting that Africans are not merely two dimensional monsters and victims as they are sometimes portrayed. The pride and excitement of young teenagers participating in a national music and dance competition is deeply endearing and their performances are exhilarating.
As a piece of cinematography, "War Dance" is first rate. The beauty of the land and the people are never lost, the film's pacing is excellent, and the testimony of the children is captured with thoughtful respect. If there is a weakness, it is that the camera does not steadily track the whole of the dance and music performances. The build up to the festival is so effective that one would prefer to simple see a record of the performances and not a montage of dramatic angles and audience reactions.
"War Dance" is both heart breaking and life affirming. It's a real triumph.