War Dance

2007, Movie, PG-13, 105 mins


As the genocide in Darfur is finally afforded much-needed attention, the story of Ugandan's war against the ruthless rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army and the plight of its youngest victims has largely gone untold. By chronicling the efforts of a group of children from a northern Ugandan refugee camp who are selected to compete in a national music competition, documentary filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine found an ingenious way to tell their story in a film that is as unflinching as it is uplifting.

For the past 20 years, the Ugandan government has fought a ferocious war in the northern region of the country against the LRA, at enormous human cost: Some 12,000 people are believed to have been killed by the LRA, which routinely raids small villages, murdering adults and kidnapping young boys to serve in their ranks as child soldiers. They're reported to have forced an estimated 2 million members of the Acholi tribe -- roughly 90 percent -- from their ancestral lands into sprawling, government-protected refugee enclaves like the war zone displacement camp at Patongo. Originally meant to house five families, Patongo is now home to over 60,000 refugees, but the camp's vulnerably isolated location means residents still aren't safe: LRA forces circle the camp like sharks, making farming in the surrounding fields impossible, and the refugees remain under 24-hour armed guard. One of the few glimmers of hope in the lives of Patongo's children is the annual National Music Competition, held in the capital city of Kampala. Each year, groups from over 20,000 Ugandan primary schools perform in regional competitions, hoping to be among the few selected to compete in the finals. In 2005, against all expectations, the kids from Patongo qualify -- a first for a refugee camp school. One month before the two-day competition – which includes such categories as "Western Choral Performance," "Traditional Dance" and "Instrumental Music" -- is scheduled to begin, the Fines begin filming three young students who hope to prove to their countrymen that kids from the war zone are more than "refugees" or "child soldiers." Their personal stories are harrowing. Fourteen-year-old Nancy was left to care for her three younger siblings when their farmer father was murdered and their mother, after being forced to bury his dismembered body, was kidnapped. Deft, 14-year-old xylophonist Dominic was kidnapped along with his older brother, and forced to serve as a soldier; he was soon made to murder two farmers with their own hoes. Thirteen-year-old Rose lost her parents during an raid and later found their severed heads in cooking pots; she now lives with an aunt who treats her like Cinderella, requiring her to cook, clean and look after her young nieces and nephews. She refuses to allow Rose to accompany the rest of the kids to Kampala.

Far from a grueling expose in Third World misery, the Fines' excellent, even suspenseful, film manages to relate the terrible details of the war in northern Uganda within the context of a hugely entertaining talent show without once trivializing the refugees' experience. Instead, we learn of their extraordinary resilience -- the children in particular -- and the power traditional art, dance and music can exert under even the most dire circumstances. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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War Dance
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War Dance: Plains Indian Musical Performance
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